National Party MPs meet today to choose their new leader. Toby Manhire previews the big decision.
Five years ago today, everything was going swimmingly. Less than a year out from the 2017 election, National was beginning to gear up for another successful campaign. The latest major poll, by Colmar Brunton for TVNZ, put the party on a nice round 50%. Labour, with Andrew Little continuing to struggle, registered just 28%. Team Key remained a very happy place to be.
Six days later, John Key took just about everyone by surprise and announced he was done. It would be wrong to say the wheels started coming off – Bill English came within a Winston-rolled cigarette paper from being returned as prime minister, Simon Bridges looked fairly stable until a virus arrived – but a few of the nuts got loosened. The brighter future looked suddenly less glittering.
The post-Key era reached its grubby nadir last week, as Judith Collins – for whom attack has always been the preferred mode of defence – determined that the time for crushing cars was over and she would instead, like the giant octopus in It Came from Beneath the Sea, focus on crushing Bridges.
With Bridges widely thought to have spent recent months carefully assembling the cross-caucus support to topple her and get a second chance at the – air quotes – worst job in politics, Collins’ incredible intervention may yet have derailed him, albeit circuitously. Collins’ late-night press release dredged up a years-old complaint, blindsided her fellow MPs, misrepresented the board, cynically exploited both a backbench MP and the me too movement. The caucus responded by telling her they no longer had confidence in her leadership. That created a vacancy. And suddenly the leadership was in play – it didn’t need what the Australians call a spill to take it.
Then came a weekend of horse-trading at the glue factory. It culminated, if various reports are to be believed, with two contenders standing as of last night: Simon Bridges and Christopher Luxon. Bridges can boast experience. He’s seen the best and the worst of politics, he understands the theatre of politics; he’s breathed and reflected, and written an honest, insightful book to prove it. Luxon, despite being six years older, can boast novelty. After years of infighting and poison, he represents something new, together with, yes, an enviable corporate CV. The image he seeks to conjure is as heir to Key – more backslapper than backstabber.
For Camp Luxon, the argument goes: we can’t risk more of the same, another round of Simon Bridges. Those in Camp Bridges can counter: quite right, we can’t risk more of the same, we can’t risk another round of Todd Muller. What they most of all can’t risk, of course, is another round of bloodletting, and to be sure to avoid that they need each other.
Some, such as Don Brash, have suggested the obvious solution, in tribute to the Key-English deal back in the day, would be one to become leader and the other deputy. That would be as misguided as it is unlikely. The organisation that sees itself as the natural party of government needs to project an image of New Zealand in 2021. Social conservatives at ranks one and two is not that. And it’s hard to imagine the liberal wings of the caucus and the wider party accepting such that is an acceptable formula for desperately sought unity.
The chatter yesterday was that Judith Collins and four of her closest allies had pledged their backing to Luxon in exchange for concessions. There may be something in that – and certainly “the Collins five” is a very appealing sobriquet – but it assumes that Collins has some magical sway over the other four. And if they simply do as she does, they’d already be voting Luxon. If Luxon has offered anything significant to Collins in exchange for her support, it’s bound to come back to bite him – it would destroy any claim to being a party political cleanskin and infuriate most of his colleagues. Whoever gets the job, along as Collins is around, her very presence will whisper the portents of vengeance.
Recent days have also seen it become accepted wisdom that MPs must reach a negotiated settlement to forestall any need for a caucus vote. That is preferable, absolutely. But hardly mission critical. It need not be calamitous for more than one contender to lay out their stall today, and for MPs to, you know, vote for the one they like the best. If it’s Luxon versus Bridges, it’s improbable either would set about plotting against the other. Much likelier would be for them to agree, even in advance, that the successful contender will appoint the other as finance spokesperson. That would leave the likeliest top three, for my money Luxon leader, high-performing social liberal Nicola Willis as deputy and Bridges third, with finance.
Whoever becomes the leader of the National Party today, the task is not to burst out of the caucus room with an extravagant big-vision speech – the timing affords a summer to chew that over, and emerge in 2022 with a fresh slate and a settled team. If the party is to articulate what John Key called the brighter future, it needs a leader who can intuitively speak to middle New Zealand as it is today, to mix critique with optimism. Just as important as that, however, is how MPs respond to their new boss.
At this juncture, it should be obvious to even the most capricious schemer that whichever leadership emerges, they should be welcomed by a caucus committed to hard work and discipline. It might seem to defy political gravity for the National Party to be anything other than first or second biggest party, but David Seymour has continued to show his indifference to gravity, on the dancefloor and in politics.
One of the National Party’s most effective campaign ads, in 2014, depicted an unsubtle rowing metaphor, to the tune of a “pretty legal” Eminem soundalike. National was the sleek crew, blades cutting through the water in unison. Labour was leading a wobbly dinghy, crowded with Greens and someone in purple (colourised in post-production) to represent – remember them? – the Internet Party. All of them were rowing in different directions. The last few years have seen a National boat that doesn’t need any other parties aboard to look like they’re sinking. The immediate task is not to race to the finish line, but plug the holes.