Guest post by Clint Smith who is a former Labour Party staffer and Ministerial Advisor who served during the 2011, 2014, and 2017 elections, and early contributor to The Standard. He now runs Victor Strategy and Communications.
I know what it’s like to be where National is now. Three elections in a row, I served as a staffer in the Leader of the Opposition’s office, and watched our dreams of victory turn to ash as the polls turned south in election year, just as they have for National during the COVID crisis.
Like the Labour leaders who couldn’t overcome John Key, Simon Bridges is simply unable to match it with Jacinda Ardern. Internal polls from both National and Labour show National is polling below 35%, with the Government parties over 60%.
The best outcome in this situation is your leader falls on his sword and the party appoints a charismatic world class leader who sweeps you to victory.
Unfortunately, not every party has a Jacinda waiting in the wings.
So what does National do?
If you’re a National MP, you can tell yourself the polls will get better for your party: as the COVID crisis recedes and economic conditions worsen those voters will swing back to National. But there’s another scenario that I saw play out three times for Labour, and happened to National in 2002: the poll slump becomes self-reinforcing. Voters might write National off and begin to look to minor parties that could limit Labour’s power, or they just jump on the winning bandwagon.
At the end of the day, an MP has to look at the polling in front on them, and on current numbers, the junior quarter to a third of National MPs face losing their seats in Parliament, and many senior MPs face losing their treasured electorates and going on the list.
If you’re a National MP and you don’t have a solid blue electorate, you’re feeling nervous right now. And you’re open to solutions.
Carrying on with Bridges isn’t going to work. He has consistently shown that, when the situation demands statesmanship, he delivers petty politics. He was unpopular before COVID. His outbursts during the crisis have only worsened his reputation.
But who would want to take the leadership now – with disastrously low polling against a Prime Minister who has guided the country through crisis?
Well, Jacinda Ardern did it and, actually, there’s no better time.
The COVID crisis has seen voters rally to the Government at National’s expense. Some of those voters will inevitably go back to National as the crisis wanes, and the economic impact builds. A new National leader would see themselves buoyed by this incoming tide, and would probably get an initial boost simply by dint of not being as unpopular as Bridges.
Any new leader will have a struggle to win the election against Jacinda Ardern at the height of her power, but expectations of winning will be low. So, if they’re seen to have at least saved their caucus mates’ jobs by lifting the vote from its current abysmal low, they will get to hold on to the leadership post-election and have another crack in 2023. If they don’t act now and let Bridges take the blame for defeat, they might face a wider pool of competitors for the leadership, including Chris Luxon, post-election.
The conditions for a leadership change are ripe – a caucus nervous for their jobs, polls at a probable nadir, and motivation for aspirants to act before the election.
It needs to be someone National’s caucus can stomach.
That rules out Judith Collins. She’s popular with the wider party and voters, and has a strong media brand but is not seen as a team player. There’s evidence to suggest she may even be the one driving the coup talk coming from inside National. If so, she’s destined to the fate of Peter Dutton – starting the spill but without the numbers to win. She could only muster a handful of caucus votes last time she tried for the leadership.
It also rules out Nikki Kaye who, while electable, is the most leftwing National MP and would need serious changes to National’s policy platform to be credible.
It needs to be someone who can take on Jacinda Ardern in terms of star power and with the ability to carve out a media niche.
That rules out the slew of nice and competent but rather dull men – Todd Muller, Mark Mitchell, Paul Goldsmith etc – who couldn’t light up a room if you put 10,000 volts through them.
Of the lot, Todd Muller is the most credible potential leader and he has economic credentials, which will need to be a big part of National’s message post-COVID. But he’s got low electability with no public profile to speak of, and is seen as a proponent of primary industry, rather than the new, sustainable economy.
This only really leaves Paula Bennett. Yeah, she’s got a lot of baggage – and I mean a lot of baggage. But she also has popularity within her caucus and the public. She’s liberal but not overly so. She’s got a big brand, a working-class backstory, and name recognition already. And she knows how to make a splash.
She’s got economic experience as former Associate Finance Minister, which could be bolstered by having Goldsmith or Muller as her Deputy.
With her flashy style and tendency to go too over the top, she may not be anyone’s first choice, but Paula Bennett could be the compromise most National MPs can back.
Bennett has been positioning herself for this moment for some time. As Bridges has stumbled, she’s been softening her public image: cutting back on the cutting remarks (no more ‘zip it, sweetie’), dropping arrogance for a more humble and friendly persona, and appearing in the women’s magazines over summer. She’s been appointed National’s campaign manager, so she’s already at the centre of election planning.
Now could be the moment Paula Bennett has been preparing for. There won’t be a better chance to save National from the Bridges disaster, give it a fighting chance at the election, and secure the leadership for the next term.