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Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller (Getty Images)
Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller (Getty Images)

OPINIONPoliticsMay 21, 2020

National needs the leadership challenge to be a clean kill. It won’t be one

Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller (Getty Images)
Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller (Getty Images)

The divisions roiling National might be forgivable if they resulted in a newly invigorated party. That seems highly unlikely now, writes Liam Hehir.

The challenge to Simon Bridges’ leadership has damaged the National Party and its election chances. This is true whether Bridges or his challenger, Todd Muller, prevails. Nobody is indispensable and leadership tensions and ambitions are a sign of life within a party. 

What is truly damaging, however, is a poorly executed challenge. The importance of a clean kill cannot be overstated. National supporters will be rightly embittered that things unfolding as they did. 

The Reid Research poll that came out on Monday was a blow. The Colmar Brunton poll due out tonight would, under normal circumstances, be better for National. However, given significant elements of the field work for the poll were completed this week, after the Reid poll came out, I would expect it to be as bad. That’s the destructive power of disunity.   

Fellow commentator Ben Thomas once remarked to me that the Labour caucus used to be in a state of constant turmoil because people who thought they were contenders would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven. And looking at the student politics background of many Labour MPs, you can see why that would be the case. That was before Jacinda Ardern united all the warlords and they haven’t looked back since. 

That’s the thing about success. It breeds more success. As poorly handled as this challenge may be, it would not have been contemplated were National looking like it was on the brink of toppling Ardern, as they were just a few months ago. 

For the record, I don’t think Simon Bridges is personally to blame for the slide in the polls. As leader, he must take responsibility for the party’s performance, of course, and I don’t think his skill set was best suited for the lockdown phase of the crisis. There were things he could have done much better. However, an invisible leader offering a “diet Coke” version of the government’s messaging would be unlikely to have fared much better. 

Bridges is not a personally popular candidate. That’s not a good thing. However, it is hard to see any other member of the caucus being materially more preferred as an alternative prime minister. Besides, research and history shows that personal unpopularity can be overcome by a policy platform that resonates, and a sound strategy for getting it out there. 

There is, however, a big problem. Inter-party divisions do not generally affect the voting intentions of party stalwarts. There is evidence that voters who aren’t partisans, however, will use internal disagreement as a shorthand for evaluating a party’s policy chops. 

So, the path forward is clear. The first thing that must happen is settlement of the leadership question. The next thing is an end to public dissension. 

That means the winner is going to have to strike a careful balance of utu and clemency. Not enough of the former, and he (or she) will have no chance of being anything other than a lame duck. Not enough of the latter and the risk is that disagreements will be intensified. 

Any time National is talking about anything other than the economy it will be bleeding votes to Labour. If it drags on much longer, it will also start bleeding votes to NZ First. It’s the second of those which could turn a tough election into a 2002-level bloodbath. 

MPs who leak and gossip with hostile media should be called to account for risking the jobs of their compadres. Talented MPs should be brought into the fold even if they supported the unsuccessful candidate. Those who would rather reign in hell should be encouraged to explore other options. 

The shenanigans of late are a slap in the face to every unpaid volunteer who has ever stuffed mailboxes or sat through boring committee meetings or parted with their hard-earned cash to support the party’s activities. 

Those people may not abandon the party, but its parliamentary section should not be so careless about letting them down. 

Keep going!