Challenger Todd Muller defeated the incumbent and is now Leader of the Opposition after a National caucus vote at Parliament.

Newly elected National Party leader Todd Muller sees the economy and a focus on the Cabinet ministers behind Jacinda Ardern as the key to winning the next election.

Speaking to media at his first press conference after wresting the leadership from Simon Bridges, Muller said the election “will be about the economy, but not the economy the bureaucracy talks about”.

“It’ll be the economy you live in: the economy in your community, your job, your main street, your tourism business, your marae.”

With just four months to peg back Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party, soaring in the polls after their widely lauded Covid-19 response, the new leader has precious little time to reshape National’s policy agenda and front bench.

Muller said a number of issues would be up for debate in a post-Covid environment, implying Bridges’ decision to rule out any coalition talks with New Zealand First could be revisited in the weeks to come.

His new deputy leader, Auckland Central leader Nikki Kaye, said Muller was “the most decent person I know” and she would use her new role to provide an alternative vision for a younger demographic. 

“The strong message that I hear from people in their 20s, 30s and 40s is that they are very worried about the fact that they’re possibly going to have to work harder, work longer and potentially pay more taxes,” Kaye said.

Reflecting Ardern’s popularity – and perhaps the backlash his predecessor got for excessive negativity – Muller offered considerable praise for her handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Opposition’s focus in the coming months would be less on attacking Ardern and more on what he said were “empty chairs” in her wider Cabinet.

“The problem with the Prime Minister and this Government is when you look behind them it falls away very quickly.

“We are in a time of crisis that is astounding. I have a sense that the scale of it has still not yet fully descended and distilled in the New Zealand national psyche.”

‘No Team Todd, just Team National’

The Bay of Plenty MP’s successful challenge became obvious just after 1pm. In a media statement confirming the victory, Muller sought to quickly repair the divisions within the caucus exposed by the leadership coup.

“There is no Team Todd, there is no Team Nikki, or anyone else – there is only Team National,” Muller said.

New Zealand needed a National government with the experience and management skills to get the country through its worst crisis since World War II, he said.

“National has always been a coalition of city and country, business and community, conservatives and liberals – National is the party for all New Zealanders…

“My focus as leader is our country’s economic recovery and the strengthening of every community throughout New Zealand.”

News of the leadership change had leaked directly from the National caucus room about 12.50pm, first to Newshub‘s Tova O’Brien.

Muller and Bridges had kept low profiles as they prepared to make their cases to the party’s 55 MPs, most of whom were also giving little away as they jetted in from around the country.

National MPs file into the caucus room for a leadership vote. Photo: RNZ/Pool.

The leadership vote started at midday, with both candidates expected to deliver brief remarks before a secret ballot. A vote for the deputy leadership was to follow, with Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye aligned with Muller against Bridges’ deputy Paula Bennett.

Arriving at Parliament with his wife Michelle, Muller had little to say but noted the vote was “a momentous day for the National Party”.

The Bay of Plenty MP’s camp expressed confidence they had the numbers to oust Bridges, although there were suggestions a surprise candidate could add some complexity to either the leadership or deputy leadership race.

Outgoing North Shore MP Maggie Barry was one of very few MPs to publicly state her support for Muller and Kaye, saying they were the right people to lead the party forward.

Rodney MP Mark Mitchell, rumoured as a potential leadership candidate himself, would not disclose his own voting preferences but said there was a sense of anticipation about the final outcome.

“Everyone just wants to get into the caucus room now and get it resolved and get it settled.”

The party’s polling results this week were “not good”, but he was confident National could fight back from that.

“In the last eight or nine weeks the Government have really had the megaphone, and of course as you’ve seen everyone in government at time of crisis usually gets a bump.”

“I think that the whole process was dishonourable and disrespectful to who we are, so here we are back again having to deal with the business.”

Hamilton West MP Tim Macindoe said there had been “a few phone calls” flying around in the run-up to the vote, but it would come down to how each candidate made their case in the room.

“The good thing is that we have two very capable people and I’d be happy to serve for either of those.”

Te Atatu-based list MP Alfred Ngaro said he had made his mind up but would not share it publicly, but had some harsh words for those behind the leadership spill.

“I think that the whole process was dishonourable and disrespectful to who we are, so here we are back again having to deal with the business.”

Asked about the party’s poll results, he said: “Politics is a contact sport eh, if you don’t want to tackle go and play petanque.”

But Ngaro believed Bridges had been holding the Government to account and doing what the public expected.

Judith Collins said National needed a clean leadership vote as it moved towards the election. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Previous leadership candidate Judith Collins said she would stand behind whoever won the race, but said she was “just the humble MP for Papakura” rather than a kingmaker.

“I always support the leader of the National Party, whoever that will be.”

Collins said she had chosen not to run as the party needed a “very clean vote” as it was only months out from the election.

National’s finance spokesman and Bridges backer Paul Goldsmith said the poll results were not good for National, but it needed to focus on the road ahead to Election Day.

“I’ve always been a supporter of Simon. The critical thing is that we get back to concentrating on the things that matter to New Zealanders…nobody wants to see polls like that and we want to do better.”

Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean said the party’s polling was “not ideal”, but not a surprise given the wider picture.

“The media has been wall to wall Covid-19 coverage. We’ve basically supported the Government in the measures they’ve taken during the lockdown so I’m not surprised, but I’m not dismayed about it either.”

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

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