National needs a special friend
Few leaders survive election defeat, and the National Party seems particularly prone to tossing its losing captains overboard.
Labour’s Helen Clark, Bill Rowling and Norman Kirk all got another shot, but it seems supremely unlikely that Bill English - who was propelled into the top job after John Key’s resignation - will get a third crack at electoral success.
In the immediate election aftermath, a sudden brutal change would have been too shocking for the party faithful. In October, Bill English and Paula Bennett were re-elected by the caucus, un-opposed. Dissent and competition was postponed, briefly.
Predictably, on the eve of Parliament re-convening last week, the doomed duo were given a nudge. Bennett was the initial target, while English has been given more time to do the decent thing, and leave with dignity. By mid-year though, both should be history.
True, English did lead his party to a solid outcome and National’s support has not declined in the polls since the election. If one ignored the fact that the political system changed a quarter century ago, this was a praiseworthy effort. What National obviously failed to do – and Key and English can share the blame for this – was to create the partnerships necessary under MMP.
Instead, National put its energies into keeping a trio of failing projects on life support – the Act Party, Peter Dunne and the Maori Party – while gambling that if it ultimately needed to, it could always buy the support of New Zealand First with a few policy trinkets. National’s leaders didn’t try to open up workable lines of communication with Winston Peters – quite the reverse – and paid the price.
It still faces that problem, regardless of who it chooses to put at the helm. Come 2020, National still appears likely to lack a viable coalition partner, and will need to reach 50 per cent all on its own. For that to happen, New Zealand First’s vote would need to collapse entirely – but recent polling indicates that the NZF vote is flowing into Labour (not National) while the Greens support is holding up.
Early days yet, but that’s a recipe for National spending a long time in opposition.
This should – but probably won’t – create caution among the ambitious members of the National caucus. Why should the party waste its best and brightest on a leadership change likely to go down in defeat, thereby triggering another round of the sort of leadership changes that plagued Labour at the start of this decade?
Arguably, National might be better off appointing one of its ambitious old timers – Judith Collins? – as interim leader for a kamikaze run in 2020, while Simon Bridges or Amy Adams bide their time as deputy for the real contest in 2023.
Whoever is leading National by mid-year, the strategic problems remain. No doubt, New Zealand First will be targeted as the weak link in the coalition government. Unfortunately though, it is usually hard to publicly wreck a relationship, and then hope to date one of the survivors straight afterwards.
Still, if NZ First’s fortunes remain lingering below the 5 per cent survival threshold, you can bet the likes of Shane Jones could become open to offers.