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.

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