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Dunne Speaks: National's Leadership Battle

Anyone who doubted that Simon Bridges is a hardened fighter got their answer with his response this week to the leadership rumblings within the National Party. For a leader whose judgement and decisiveness had been questioned on a number of occasions during the Covid19 outbreak, he displayed a remarkable clarity and swiftness in bringing the increasingly festering boil of the National Party leadership to a head. Friday’s leadership vote has certainly taken the public by surprise, and looks to have caught a number of National MPs off-guard as well.

While there had been speculation for some time about how secure Simon Bridges’ leadership was, the conventional wisdom was that nothing would be done this close to the election. For a start, none of the potential candidates to replace him would have wanted to be seen to precipitate a divisive and potentially electorally destructive coup just four months before an election. Nor was there any sign that Simon Bridges would decide to stand aside voluntarily for the sake of the party, as then Labour leader Andrew Little did in 2017. And there was certainly no Jacinda Ardern coming forward to replace him. After the election, and with the likelihood of another term in Opposition things might look a little different.

Typically, politicians brush aside public opinion polls, good or bad, lest they be accused of acting like the “poll-driven fruitcakes” former Prime Minister David Lange once described his Caucus critics as. However, privately, they take them very seriously, especially those bearing bad news. In 1990, bad polls after bad polls forced then Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer to make way for Mike Moore, barely 59 days before the election, as Labour MPs worried their seats were at stake unsuccessfully sought rescue. Bad polls led a group of Labour MPs to call on Labour leader Helen Clark to stand aside in 1996, but she called their bluff and survived. It is no different today. There are undoubtedly a number of National MPs worried that recent bad polls mean they will be without seats after the September election, hence the search for an alternative leadership.

It is apparent now that after much speculation about who might replace Simon Bridges that the focus has settled on Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller, with Auckland Central’s Nikki Kaye as his running mate. While the numbers for change may have been beginning to firm behind the Muller/Kaye ticket, it is not clear that they were ready to be thrust into limelight as yet, the bad polls and the proximity of the election notwithstanding. Indeed, the several hours’ hesitancy between Bridges’ claim that there was a challenge which he would move to head off through as early a vote as possible, and Muller’s later confirmation that he was the challenger suggests as much.

So, by immediately opting for a leadership vote, and bringing the timing of that forward to Friday, Bridges has – at least temporarily – grabbed the initiative. Muller and his supporters have been placed on the back foot – they now have to put up, or shut up. It is a very bold gamble by Bridges who, publically at least, seems confident it will succeed. Time will tell.

However, the leadership chalice which either Bridges or Muller will pick up on Friday is likely to be a very poisoned one. Hotly contested leadership challenges always produce further divisions, no matter the superficial goodwill dispensed on such occasions. If Bridges wins, his immediate challenge will to be deal with Muller and his supporters. Too much conciliation and he risks being seen as weak; too much retribution and he will be seen as petulant and overly vengeful. If Muller wins, he will have to make some sort of peace offering to Bridges and his supporters to get them on-side for the election campaign. It is likely to be an unsatisfactory outcome either way, with the internal divisions it opens up certain to take some time to heal.

From the perspective of both sides the hope has to be that the Caucus vote produces a decisive result. Bridges cannot afford to be re-elected by a very narrow margin; nor will Muller be seen as enjoying the confidence of the Caucus if he prevails by just one or two votes. Normally, the results of Caucus leadership votes are not officially released, but the numbers invariably make their way into the public arena very quickly after the vote has taken place. If the vote is close, both the government parties and the media will have a field day right through until the election pointing out the polarisation within the National Party Caucus.

From the public’s perspective, while there will be interest in the relative merits of Bridges or Muller as leader of the National Party, and who might be better for the party’s prospects, the overriding feeling will be a sense of unease at the level of internal division that has been exposed. They will be asking themselves the question that should be of primary interest to the National MPs: how can a party that is this divided today present itself as a credible, united team with a coherent and focused plan for the future they are all committed to, when the election comes around in just seventeen weeks?

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