End of Year Dread Descends for English
By Paulo Politico
English has indulged in political self-mutilation in recent days – calling for the SAS to be pulled out of Afghanistan. It’s a testament to his lack of judgement that found himself marginalised with only Green peacenik Keith Locke offering support. That lack of judgement will not be lost on his party colleagues. Is there a coupster in the wind?
The end of the year is traditionally the time of leadership coups.
The October/November period is a time when Members of Parliament traditionally feel jaded and worn down. It is a time when the government is looking to crank up the workload in order to get through as much business as possible prior to the holiday recess.
It is also a time when opposition MPs reflect in their own situation. Individual caucuses have an opportunity to assess (a) how the year has gone, and (b) what does the future have install.
The last point is noteworthy for unpopular political leaders. Poor poll ratings and grumpy colleagues make for a dangerous combination. This time of the year is the perfect time for recalcitrant caucus members to strike out and make a bid for the leadership of a political party.
Traditionally this often occurs when a political leader is outside of the country. Rob Muldoon used Jack Marshall’s absence from New Zealand organise the numbers in 1974. Jenny Shipley’s supporters used Jim Bolger’s absence in 1997 to secure a majority for the challenger. Bill English’s supporters employed the same tactics to confirm the numbers against Shipley late last year.
English has indulged in political self-mutilation in recent days – calling for the SAS to be pulled out of Afghanistan. It’s a testament to his lack of judgement that found himself marginalised with only Green peacenik Keith Locke offering support. That lack of judgement will not be lost on his party colleagues.
Prior to this latest blunder, the polls represent English’s biggest roadblock.
The latest One News Colmar Brunton poll makes for chilling reading for the embattled National leader. Support for Helen Clark’s Labour Party climbs to 51 percent, up four. Support for English’s National Party falls to 25 percent, down one. Labour continues to outscore National by a 2-to-1 margin.
The preferred Prime Minister question makes for even worse reading. Helen Clark mains a solid lead with 48 percent, down one. Support for English registers at 10 percent, up one. But in the months since the election, support for English as party leader has collapsed for a high of 19 percent in mid July to just 10 percent at present.
The collapse in English’s personal support is consistent with English’s diminished standing in Parliament. Once an obvious Leader of the Opposition, English now competes with his own colleagues and other opposition leaders from the opportunity to ask questions of the day. Arguably the stronger performer (Winston Peters) on the opposition benches, now threatening to push English into third place.
According to this poll, English’s 10 percent support rating is only three points ahead of New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. The Prime Minister leaves English for dead, maintaining an overwhelming 5-to-1 lead over National leader.
Part of the English’s problem is his basic message. There’s no point being a doomsday merchant when the message is clearly a fiction. What’s the point of trying to talk down the economy, when optimism about New Zealand’s economic outlook remains strong at 42 percent, up three. What’s the point of denigrating the government’s performance when its approval rating remains at 63 percent, up two.
Clearly there is a need for English to embark on a wholesale rethink of his modus operandi. His messages are confusing and morose. He has become a doom merchant who talks about an economic slow-down (that has never arrived), problems in health and education (although he never offers a solution), and contradictory statements over defence and national security (without consulting his colleagues).
The net result is a collapse in confidence in the National Party and its leader. How long will it be before English’s own colleagues confirm public sentiment and move to replace him as leader?
The end of the year is the perfect time for such a challenge to take place.
Two things may save English. Firstly English faces no obvious challengers – and I will talk about this in some detail shortly. Secondly he may be saved by the fact that because only 14 votes would secure a majority in National’s parliamentary caucus, it may be difficult for ambitious colleagues to shelve their own desire to lead in favour of a single challenger.
That said, I am being generous and stating that 14 votes would be difficult to achieve in a fragmented caucus. But who knows what is possible when National MPs continue to stumble in the political doldrums.
Getting back to the issue of who could challenge, I have previously speculated that Simon Power will replace English as leader. English has attempted to placate power by rapidly promoting his to the frontbench anyway. The tactic here is to send a signal to Power: “wait your turn, you’re on the rise anyway, so don’t try and jump the gun”.
Power may buy the message. But even if he wants to challenge English, he would have to join the queue.
Gerry Brownlee is a more obvious challenger. The MP for Ilam is an ambitious MP who was previously close to Shipley. He is a big man with a certain presence that English has never been able to secure.
Brownlee may also be able to garner some votes around him. The Christchurch-based MP could obviously look to former Shipley supporters such as David Carter, Maurice Williamson, Clem Simich and possibly Lockwood Smith, along with Shipley’s replacement in Rakaia, Brian Connell. Along with his own vote, Brownlee would already have half of the total number he would need to roll English in a caucus challenge. If National continues to trail the government by a 2-to-1 margin and if English continues to trail the Prime Minister by a 5-to-1 margin, how hard would it be for Brownlee to secure the other 8 votes he needs for victory?
English also faces the problem of enemies within his own faction, on top of the group who never really supported him in the first place. The once precocious brat packers Tony Ryall and Nick Smith have been relegated to the second bench. Having been MPs for 12 years, both Ryall and Smith are helplessly watching the sun set on their careers.
The same problem is affecting MPs Georgina teHuehue, Pansy Wong (both marginal list MPs) and Shane Ardern. All three MPs are tragically ineffectual. But all three possess attributes that English might have thought useful to promote – Maori, Asian, rural. That has not been the case.
As English has overlooked those MPs, all three might be inclined to jump ship and endorse a challenger who offers a sweetener like a promotion within caucus. As it stands all three are going nowhere as long as English continues to lead the National Party.
With such a tiny caucus it is not hard to see how a challenger might use the October/November period to make a move. All the ingredients are there.
National is down in the polls. Its MPs are still trying to come to turns with the collapse in voter support, which led to the party securing only 21 percent support at the last election.
National MPs have failed to win traction on key issues. Despite relentless attempts to gain traction, National languishes while approval in the government’s performance continues to grow.
The seeds of discontent exist. Those seeds will be tilled with the passage of time and an inability to make headway against a government that is like a fine wine – improving with age.
The next step will be the next session of the House. But even then there are no magic bullets. A raft of likely economic good news awaits on the horizon – improving labour market figures, the December Economic and Fiscal Update, and more survey results, which will show no-doubt show robust economic growth throughout regional New Zealand.
The Prime Minister is leading, encouraging trade links with other countries abroad, and encouraging growth and innovation at home. At the same time English is battling to remain relevant, both against other opposition leaders in Parliament, and in the eyes of at least 13 of his caucus colleagues.
Now is not the time to take an trip overseas
for an unpopular leader.