The unstoppable ticking sound begins for Bill English and Paula Bennett

When backbench murmurings about leadership change seep through the media, the flow becomes hellishly difficult to staunch, writes Toby Manhire.

To get a sense of the steel behind the caucus murmurings about a change in the leadership of the National Party, consider that they were communicated to Newstalk ZB political editor Barry Soper just in time for Bill English’s first big set-piece of the year. The National Party leader’s State of the Nation speech this afternoon is designed to seize some of the initiative back from the attention-hogging new government, to begin the year on the front foot. No dice. When he faces the press after the address, English will be assailed with unwelcome questions about his own job, about the chatter within his ranks, about whether his time is up.

“The numbers are being counted” and it is a question of when, not if, Soper’s sources say. While English is expected to “be allowed to go gracefully and with dignity” (a gesture towards doing the honorable thing that jars a little given the timing), his deputy, Paula Bennett, is seen by some “as his Achilles heel during the last election and … she could be replaced as soon as next week’s caucus”.

For all that they almost invariably rely on unnamed sources, reports such as this tend to snowball, become self-fulfilling prophecies even. “Speculation mounts over Bill English’s National leadership,” ran the item this morning on RNZ’s Morning Report. “Battle to replace Bill English: It’s all on”, went Newshub’s headline. And from Stuff: “National knives are out over election loss.”

By most accounts, English outperformed expectations when he took over following John Key’s surprise resignation. He led National to comfortably the highest chunk of parliamentary representation of any party in the September. What he couldn’t do, however, is secure a coalition deal with Winston Peters. With National currently lacking in obvious MMP dance partners, any leadership contest will include a push for someone capable of deal-making with the dreaded NZ First. Meanwhile the much heralded Strongest Opposition Ever is a double-edged sword – the colossal National opposition has a lot of backbenchers, and from a lot of opposition backbenchers a lot of impatience quickly springs.

Who might replace English? Simon Bridges has been widely touted, off the back of an undeniably impressive start as a senior opposition MP, complete with a streak of mongrel. Nikki Kaye is the other new-generation prospect, with the added advantage of having beaten Jacinda Ardern twice in Auckland Central. Amy Adams could be a compromise candidate. And who could rule out Judith Collins?

“It is expected [English] will be allowed to go gracefully and with dignity but those behind him are now lining up to replace him,” Soper said this morning – and Soper has done a few of these rodeos, having reported from the parliamentary press gallery since before most of the contenders to replace English were born.

English is no spring chicken himself, and he’ll know how these things play out. Apart from anything else, the question is does English really have his heart in it. His early interviews in 2018 have hardly revealed a man full of zeal to lead his party into 2020. His front-bench post-election reshuffle was deeply underwhelming, mostly involving ex-ministers assigned to shadow their old portfolios, not much more than a sniff for rising talent. If he does intend to defy the swarming reporters and circling pundits and lead his party into 2020, English will need to issue a bold declaration of that ambition, followed swiftly by an assertive reshuffle.

As for the governing benches, after enduring almost a decade of constant adolescent needling over the stability of their own leadership, we can confidently expect Labour Party MPs to adopt the high ground and a lofty restraint.


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