Analysis: The race for National’s leadership has truly begun

New Zealand has now had two weeks of speculation and discussion about the National Party’s leadership. Although it doesn’t appear that Bill English’s departure is necessarily imminent, there seems to be a building consensus it is inevitable. Allied to this is a push for generational change at the top of the party. 

Below are some of the most important, interesting and insightful items about National’s leadership issues.

1. For anyone unconvinced Bill English’s time is nearly up, John Armstrong’s TVNZ column is a must-read – see: Bill English represents National's past, not its future. That is simply a fact of life. He provides a comprehensive and credible list of the reasons why English should – and will – step down as leader before the 2020 election. One of the most interesting is this: “The brutal truth is the question of who will end up leading National into the next general election is going to be the story which refuses to die. And English well knows it. The story will refuse to die because someone very much wants to keep it alive – the someone who sabotaged English's ‘state was of the nation’ speech.”

2. One of Armstrong’s best arguments for English departing is “he has nothing left to prove in politics. He has done it all. For him to stick around in the wasteland of opposition for the next three years in the hope of getting another crack at being prime minister would be an immense and regrettable waste of his talents, skills and brain power.” And Heather du Plessis-Allan has written in a similar vein, suggesting it’s better for English to go out on a high: “Every day that he hangs on in the job of National leader is a day that chips away at the solid reputation he's managed to carve out over nine years as a careful finance minister and a safe-as-houses prime minister” – see: Why Bill English should quit – and soon

3. English’s departure was pushed along by the most recent Newshub opinion poll. Although it had National at an impressive 45%, Mr English’s personal support plummeted. Reflecting on this, Tim Watkin says “every rule of politics says it's time for Mr English to go. His preferred Prime Minister number now sits at 26% to Ardern's 38%. Down nine. It's hard to conceive of a way he could ever pass her again” – see: Predictable polls and bye-bye Bill. Watkin also says his time is simply over: “A vote for him in 2020 reeks of looking backward.”

4. English will soon be gone according to Gordon Campbell, along with his deputy – see: On National’s leadership rumbles. He says: “The doomed duo were given a nudge – with Bennett as the initial target while English is being given time to do the decent thing, and leave with dignity. By mid-year though, both should be history – thereby giving the new team a two-year run at the Ardern administration.”

5. Barry Soper was first to report National’s internal dissatisfaction with Bill English remaining as leader. And he stands by his reporting – despite some National MPs saying his story was made up, and adds further detail: “The talk is that English will be allowed to leave under his own terms, he'll decide the timing. But the expectation is that he will bow out before the next election, realising that competing against a young mother with a cute two-year-old, is beyond him” – see: Proof of guilt is denial, and there are denials all around inside National.

6. The problem for English is that, even if he were safe in his position before the past fortnight, the speculation has started the ball rolling in a way that will be almost impossible to halt. As Richard Harman says, “Once leadership speculation starts in a party, unless it can be dramatically stifled right at the beginning, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy” – see: The Nats – does no news mean there is no news?

7. Retiring from political leadership with dignity is always a fraught process. For example, all the talk of Mr English being expected to step down but “leave on his own terms” is not as kind as it might sound, according to Claire Trevett: “One of the most misappropriated phrases in politics is that a leader has left on his or her own terms. As soon as somebody says a particular leader will be given the dignity of leaving on their own terms the writing is on the wall. It effectively means somebody has stamped a ‘best by’ date on their leadership and the date is nigh. Leaders never really leave on their own terms – but if they are respected, people turn a blind eye to the reality that it was a choice forced upon them and pretend it was their own decision” – see: Bill English sentenced to leaving On His Own Terms

8. So why doesn’t Mr English just go and leave them to it? Mike Williams of the Labour Party gave a very succinct answer to this on TVNZ: “There are two things in the way. One, there is no successor, at least no obvious successor. Two, he is very loyal to his own party, he is a good man and he doesn't want to see a horrible fight and that's what would happen if he stepped away now. So he wants to go, he will go, it's just a question of the timing” – see: Bill English 'wants to go' as National's leader but is staying on to prevent a 'horrible' leadership fight

9. John Roughan adds the National leader’s desire to protect and fight for his fledgling social investment system to English’s reasons to hold on – see: Bill English wants to retire despite success

10. Claire Trevett also cites social investment issues as a reason for delaying his exit as leader: “He is fiercely protective of the social investment approach and the work he had hoped to build on as a prime minister. Giving up that hope of a legacy will hurt” – see: The National Party caucus winds up, minus the fleet of Crown cars. Once English has finished bedding in his party to the role of opposition, Ms Trevett believes he’s more likely to step down. 

11. Ms Trevett also says that there is a strategy of “wait and see” in National at the moment, with the idea that external factors – such as problems for the parties in government – might yet make changing Mr English’s leadership premature. Chris Trotter endorses this approach, pointing to the upcoming May 17 Budget as a very difficult test for the coalition government: “That’s when the deepening fissures in this ramshackle political construction will suddenly and dramatically widen; and the government’s most loosely-fastened adornments will begin falling off” – see: Bonny Prince Billy.

12. It has become clear there is “deeper discontent” within National than just Bill English’s leadership, according to Audrey Young – see: Lose talk will ultimately destabilise English's leadership. Both Paula Bennett and Steven Joyce are being targeted, especially for their role in last year’s loss of government. Ms Young says: “if Joyce, a list MP, were to resign from Parliament to pursue business interests, there would a lot of silent clapping from the caucus. He lost the Northland byelection to Peters when he wasn't meant to, he won it back when he wasn't meant to, and he ran the campaign that saw National lose power.”

13. There are many articles surveying the possible replacements for Mr English as leader, as well as for other senior positions in National. The latest is Claire Trevett’s Pros and cons: Who will be National's next leader? This gives a sense of National having to choose between more aggressive politicians such as Judith Collins and Simon Bridges or the more genial types such as Nikki Kaye, Jonathan Coleman, Amy Adams or Mark Mitchell.  

14. Discussion on Mr English’s likely replacement actually began soon after National departed government in October last year. Max Towle’s summary, Who’s next for National?, is one of the most comprehensive.

15. In the same month, Henry Cooke published, If Bill English goes, these people are his likely replacements. Both Paula Bennett and Simon Bridges are pointed to as possible first Maori leaders of National. And Nikki Kaye’s youth and gender are promoted as a potential advantage: “There wouldn't be any worry about looking sexist or demeaning when Ms Kaye took on Ms Ardern, and indeed the spectre of 72-year-old Winston Peters attacking a woman three and a half decades his junior might help National.” 

16. Other journalists started giving their impressions – on TV3’s The AM Show, the field of possible candidates was surveyed, with Duncan Garner predicting that National would go with Mr Bridges – see: Battle to replace Bill English: 'It's all on'. Newshub’s Jenna Lynch also pronounced Mr Bridges as the “clear frontrunner” in November, and suggested Nikki Kaye as his deputy – see: Simon Bridges winning race to be next National leader

17. At about the same time, the New Zealand First leader also discussed Mr English’s replacement in Parliament – giving contenders various odds, such as Judith Collins (5:1) and Amy Adams (30:1) – see Newshub’s Winston Peters predicts the next leader of the National Party

18. NBR’s Matthew Hooton pushed Simon Bridges as a likely next leader, back in November: “Snobs in both the old-school-tie and Grey Lynn establishments mock him for his haircut and working-class vowels. But, unlike Ms Adams or Ms Kaye, Mr Bridges can legitimately claim to be both urban and provincial, growing up in West Auckland, moving comfortably into Oxford University and his wife’s fashionable Parnell media networks, and representing the mid-size city of Tauranga since 2008” – see: Bridges takes early lead in race to replace English (paywalled).

19. Mr Hooton has also argued strongly for significant “generational change” in National, to be able to compete with the new government, saying “its return to power depends on it achieving generational change faster than Labour managed between 2008-2017. Old faces don’t win 21st century elections” – see: National’s old guard on borrowed time (paywalled). He stresses how this should occur sooner rather than later: “It took Labour nearly nine years to make the necessary generational change to become credible again – and it is instructive how quickly the game changed when it did. Unless the National caucus wants to remain in the thrall of the has-beens who lead them now, it best move faster than its old foes did.” Similarly, see Ben Thomas’ The next National leader likely to fall? Not English but his deputy

20. According to Richard Harman, Mr Bridges has the numbers in the National caucus to become the leader, and it’s just a question of who the deputy leader is: Ms Adams, Ms Kaye or Ms Collins – see: The Nats – does no news mean there is no news? Here’s Harman on the deputy issue: “The obvious deputy would be Selwyn MP Amy Adams but whether National could afford to have two provincial MPs as its leadership team is a question that particularly Auckland MPs will be asking. The two other potential candidates would be Nikki Kaye, who as an Auckland liberal would counterbalance Bridge’s social conservatism. Alternatively, Judith Collins would make a fiery opposition deputy leader.”

Finally, for satire on the two favourites to replace Bill English and Paula Bennett, see Tom Sainsbury’s “Kiwis of Snapchat” impersonations: Simon Bridges, opposition MP, and Nikki Kaye.

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