The identity of the next National leader still feels very much up in the air – but they can be almost certain of a nigh-impossible task in dethroning Jacinda Ardern and her coalition government, Sam Sachdeva writes.

Comment: There’s not long to go now until Bill English’s successor is revealed to the world, but it may feel like an eternity for the five MPs vying to replace him.

The last few days have been a frenzy of last-minute calls and counting to see who is in a position to come out on top in Tuesday morning’s caucus vote.

As has been the case since almost the first day, Simon Bridges and Amy Adams appear to be duking it out for the top spot.

Suggestions that Bridges and Adams have 20-odd votes each appear roughly accurate, although who is ahead and by how much seems far more contested.

There were suggestions from Bridges’ camp that he had edged closer to the magical 29-vote mark as votes firmed up on Monday. Yet it’s clearly not in the bag for either of them, otherwise we would surely have heard something to that effect.

The format for the contest – a secret ballot, with progressive voting until a candidate secures a majority of the caucus – also adds an element of unpredictability.

Any horse-trading between eliminated candidates and those still in the race would seem difficult, given the impossibility of guaranteeing secret votes, while those who have promised their votes to one camp could still change their minds.

At least some candidates were still working the phones late into Monday night, hopeful of swaying some MPs.

A disciplined race

What’s striking about this leadership race is how disciplined it has been, even with five different candidates and their supporters jockeying for position.

While Adams drew attention – and cries of foul play (refuted by senior whip Jami-Lee Ross) – with a quartet of MPs flanking her at her candidacy announcement, no others have followed in publicly declaring their intentions.

While the leadership hopefuls have done more than their fair share of publicity, it has been largely light-hearted or “soft” news, rather than the head-to-head debates that Labour and the Greens have gone through.

That’s not for want of trying from Collins, who has twice been the sole participant in a campaign “debate” after the others declined to show.

The would-be populist has made a virtue out of taking every media appearance on offer, while her supporters have been bombarding their electorate MPs with emails and calls asking them to back her.

Some in Camp Collins have pointed to her name recognition with the public, along with a UMR Research survey giving her a (slim) lead.

Yet the same survey gave Collins a net favourability rating of negative 20 percent, alarming enough to stop her from having a serious shot.

Collins is undoubtedly an effective attack dog, and a frontbench role seems certain once the new leader is chosen.

It’s also unclear why a party still polling in the mid-40s would feel the need to energise the base, rather than winning back some of the centrist voters who have drifted across to Labour.

Yet Collins is undoubtedly an effective attack dog, and a frontbench role seems certain once the new leader is chosen.

As for the other runners, Mitchell seems to have burnished his reputation with a solid if unspectacular campaign. As the newest of the leadership contenders, he will have done no harm to himself by seeming keen, and could benefit from a elevated position and a portfolio which the public may care more about than defence.

Joyce’s candidacy feels as much about as stabilising his position as a genuine bid, given the mutterings about his disposal following the election result.

He also has rare experience of life in opposition, albeit as a campaign strategist rather than an MP, and was undoubtedly one of the powerhouses of the last government.

At this stage, Paula Bennett appears to be the only declared candidate for the deputy’s role. Yet it seems likely that will change as leadership runners drop out and bid for a lesser position of power.

A hellish task

Yet whoever does come out on top, the unavoidable truth is that they will face a hellish task to wrest back the baubles of office from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Labour-led coalition.

History is against them: New Zealand has not had a one-term government in 43 years, and even that required the death of the sitting prime minister Norman Kirk.

Barring disaster, it seems almost certain Kiwi voters will be willing to give Ardern and her team another go.

And although National may be holding relatively steady at present, any drop in polling could lead to a rise in division.

As one party MP noted following John Key’s resignation, the caucus had operated somewhat like a benign dictatorship: a loss of personal freedom in exchange for electoral stability.

That held true under English, despite some sparks of backbench discontent before his coronation, but it could prove hard for the new leader to hold together the various factions in opposition.

The reshuffle that follows the leadership change could provide the first real test: if there are any signs of preferential treatment for particular wings of the party, it may not take long for tensions to rise.

Then there are the bigger questions: does the party need to rebuild and regenerate from the top down, or can it hold course given it outperformed Labour on election day?

Can National make friends between now and 2020, or does it have to rely on driving New Zealand First below five percent and pipping a Labour/Green team to the post?

There are no easy answers, and any missteps by the leader will be seized on eagerly by rivals both external and internal.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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