The battle for National’s leadership looks set to go to the wire – but whoever holds the job by the end of the day may be grasping a poisoned chalice, Sam Sachdeva writes.

In recent years, the National Party has prided itself on a lack of overt, messy factionalism.

There have always been diverging viewpoints within the caucus, of course, but those have been papered over in the interests of public unity – certainly compared to the bitter infighting that dogged the Labour opposition during its time in the wilderness.

Even as first Bill English then Simon Bridges ascended to the party’s top job, their rises came largely without bitter recriminations (aided by the fact they were replacing retiring incumbents).

Such a smooth outcome seems highly unlikely when the caucus meets at midday Friday, irrespective of whether or not Bridges is usurped by his main challenger, Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller.

Where English was replaced after a public contest of ideas between several candidates across a fortnight, Muller was almost forced into a quick-paced battle.

Bridges set the tempo by first confirming a fledgling challenge to his leadership on Wednesday morning, then recalling MPs to Wellington for a Friday showdown instead of waiting for Parliament to resume sitting next Tuesday.

Even after being flushed out, Muller has kept a conspicuously low profile, declining most interviews and doing little to publicly articulate his vision for National and New Zealand.

Todd Muller has kept a low public profile as he seeks to become Opposition leader. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

That is understandable: after all, he needs to win over at least half of his 54 before he can even begin to think about the country’s “team of five million”.

But it may also reflect the fact that his bid to oust Bridges is not based on deep-seated ideological differences, but matters of tone and style.

Muller’s camp argues the public have had more than enough time to warm up to the current leader, and it is clear he is acting as a drag on, rather than a boost to, their hopes of regaining office.

Their case has been bolstered by the Newshub-Reid Research poll on Monday showing National’s vote cratering to just over 30 percent, as well as a 1 News-Colmar Brunton poll on Thursday night showing the party falling even lower than that – to just 29 percent, its worst performance since 2003.

Bridges’ own numbers are no better: his net approval rating in the 1 News poll was an astonishing -40 with a full 63 percent of voters disapproving of his performance.

That is terrible in a vacuum, but even worse when set against Jacinda Ardern’s 76 point approval rating.

Bridges supporters point out, not without some validity, that National’s vote had held up well enough before the pandemic despite his personal ratings, and that Labour’s gaping lead is one it would almost certainly hold no matter who led the Opposition.

Why throw out months of pre-election planning to take a flier on an untested and unproven leader who has never held a ministerial warrant?

Simon Bridge seems to be banking on his experience to help him hold on to his job. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

It is true that Muller is far from a household name, as demonstrated by the almost comical failure of voters to identify him from photos brandished by TV reporters.

The former Zespri and Fonterra executive has a reputation as a thoroughly likeable, good-natured politician – but that has no guarantee of success (just ask David Shearer or Andrew Little).

But even if Muller isn’t able to match Ardern’s ascent after succeeding Little, there is a school of thought that a blank slate as National leader may still be better for the party than the deeply unpopular status quo.

Both camps are expressing confidence in their chances of victory, but the overall sense is that the duo are neck and neck going into the secret ballot.

The 1 News poll may shift some wavering MPs, but it merely acts as ballast to Newshub’s poll rather than changing the picture dramatically.

The actions of previous leadership contenders could yet have a role in swaying the vote one way or the other, even if they don’t win themselves.

Judith Collins has publicly sworn off any tilt, but is there any scope for a last-minute change of heart? And might Mark Mitchell throw his hat in the ring as someone indicated to One News, despite comments to the contrary?

A messy aftermath

But there will be a messy aftermath to clean up for whoever emerges successful.

The best result for the party, a commanding and decisive win, seems off the table unless there is a dramatic change.

Even if Bridges ekes out a narrow victory, the questions about his leadership will not go away, while he will almost certainly have to demote Muller, his putative deputy Nikki Kaye and other mutineers to the backbenches – taking out some of his strongest performers and leaving them to plot further behind his back.

A narrow victory for Muller will leave him wary of a bitter predecessor and needing to quickly rebuild unity while also convincing the public he represents a genuine change of approach.

Then there is the bigger picture: going up against a young government helmed by an immensely popular prime minister who has led the country through several high-profile crises, and whose party has every incentive to stay unified and on-message.

There is a reason why we have not had a one-term government since 1975 (and even that came only after the death of the prime minister at the time).

Of course, the goal may now be about saving the furniture, rather than any real hope of winning the election.

But there is a risk the whole saga will simply amount to shuffling deck chairs as the Titanic sinks.

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

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