The decision to replace Simon Bridges, an uncompromising scrapper, with the apparently politer and more urbane Todd Muller is a gamechanger but is unlikely to result in the ousting of Ardern. The prize is 2023, writes Peter Dunne

At first glance the leadership coup that installed Todd Muller as leader of the National Party seemed a sudden and desperate response to plummeting opinion poll numbers, barely 120 days before the General Election. It appeared to show politicians at their most craven and venal – far more worried about saving their own seats in Parliament than the wellbeing of their Party or the country.

We now know that the move to replace Simon Bridges was no spontaneous uprising of the afraid and the panicked. Rather, it had been underway for some time, and all last week’s adverse poll results did was bring things to a head.

What has become apparent in the subsequent unpicking of what happened was that Todd Muller and his supporters had meticulously organised a very professional and thorough campaign to be enacted at the appropriate time.

Quite unlike, for example, the Brash coup that unseated Bill English in 2003, without having thought who the deputy leader might be, and the unseemly hiatus that followed before Nick Smith, the unexpected Caucus choice of the day, stood down in favour of Gerry Brownlee.

The considered and careful way in which the campaign against Simon Bridges was conceived, calculated and carried out should dispel any doubts about Team Muller’s capacity to organise over the next 17 weeks an election campaign that at its very least will be extremely competitive with the Labour-led Government.

While some have some seen the match between the socially conservative Muller and his urban liberal deputy Nikki Kaye as potentially awkward, the reality is that the National Party at all levels is far better than any other party at uniting in the interests of the common cause, especially with the sniff of an election in the offing.

… it was not about personalities, policies, or even performance – it was just solely about regaining political office

National, after all, exists primarily for the achievement and exercise of power, with policy a secondary consideration. Most other parties exist to promote certain policy ideals and see the attainment of power as the means by which they can implement those ideals. As far as National has been concerned throughout its history, policy without power is a little pointless.

That is why the recent leadership change, despite the disappointment, brutality and dissembling that always accompanies such events, has gone comparatively smoothly.

After all, it was not about personalities, policies, or even performance – it was just solely about regaining political office, and the best leadership to achieve that. Issues of style and policy direction all ran second to that overarching purpose. So, as that was the one objective that the entire Caucus could agree on, the campaign could be conducted, at least in public, without too much in the way of overt personal recrimination.

While Simon Bridges had seemed the best choice to lead National when he was elected to the role in 2018, he was in many ways cut from the wrong cloth to be ultimately successful.

Bridges is an uncompromising scrapper, always prepared to fight for and hold his turf, to confront and never run away from his opponents, in a fashion similar to the other outsider to lead the National Party – Sir Robert Muldoon.

Muldoon is remembered today as one of our more notorious leaders. However, he did deliver three consecutive election victories to the National Party, dispirited after its 1972 annihilation at the hands of Norman Kirk.

What is overlooked, though, is the shakiness of his first few months as party leader. The backstabbing of Sir John Marshall, and the bluntness of some Muldoon’s early forays as leader, including getting involved in a public brawl at one stage, had many in the party questioning whether they had made the right move.

But then the unthinkable happened – the seemingly invincible Kirk died suddenly, and the first oil shock hit the New Zealand economy a few months later, both events saving Muldoon’s leadership and providing a pathway to his landslide election victory in 1975.

For Bridges, though, there were no such dramatic interventions. Rather, at the time when his aggressive style was paying him no personal dividends (even though National was still holding up strongly in the polls) the Covid-19 crisis struck. Jacinda Ardern’s empathetic and compassionate style struck an overwhelming chord with the public, despite the chaotic nature of some of her policy decisions.

The querulous and carping tone Bridges was seen to adopt in response – even if he was right about New Zealand’s tardiness in closing its borders, and the haphazard way in which the testing regime, and the provision of PPE equipment to health workers was carried out – was out of step with the public mood of the country.

Bridges’ tone, and the consequent slump in National’s polling fortunes, sealed his fate. Unlike Muldoon, an improbable election victory would no longer be there to save his leadership.

Instead, the National Party quickly and calmly replaced him with Todd Muller – the 2020s version of Brian Talboys, the polite, moderate, urbane, and steady figure perennially touted in the 1970s as the best person to replace the irascible Muldoon, if he stumbled once too often.

As with Talboys, the party will feel much more comfortable with the less confrontational Muller in charge, and the appointments he has made to his senior team look more like the traditional comfortable National Party urban/rural; liberal/conservative brand that has served them so well over the years, than the more overtly right wing look of the Bridges’ years.

While Muller’s selection is a game changer for the coming election, it is still far more likely than not that some form of Adern-led administration will prevail.

Muller’s real mission, therefore, may be to get the National Party vote and numbers of seats back to where it was at the 2017 election, to ensure victory in 2023, when the depth of the ongoing ravages of Covid-19 and consequences of the Government’s responses to the accompanying economic and social disruption have more clearly bitten.

The extent to which Muller is able to shift the focus from the current situation to the economic and social reconstruction that will be required, an area where National has good credentials given its performances post the Global Financial Crisis and the Christchurch Earthquakes, will determine how successful he will be, at least in the short term.

There remain strong and cogent reasons to continue to rule out New Zealand First.

But if he cannot shift the immediate public focus away from the government’s handling of the last few tumultuous weeks and onto the reconstruction, where the ground looks far more shaky for Labour, he will struggle to gain the traction he needs.  

National’s return to a more traditional leadership tone has raised the question of future partners in government. Muller himself has raised the possibility of New Zealand First, and whether the current position of refusing to work with that party might be revisited. At the same time, he has been quick to state that the Caucus has so far made no move in that direction.

It is not a decision to be rushed. There remain strong and cogent reasons to continue to rule out New Zealand First. For a start, its antagonism to National has been consistent and deep-seated over the last 25 years, and could not be quickly overcome, even if New Zealand First had a different leader.

Moreover, any hint of the possibility of working together runs the real risk of potential party votes for National leeching off to New Zealand First, to “help” National in the same way they did in 2017, only to then cost National when New Zealand First sided with Labour. Either way, there is no guarantee they will end up working together after the election.

Attempts by New Zealand First MPs to suggest the door might be to open to working with a Muller-led National Party are transparently facile.

For those MPs, Muller’s musings revive the possibility of relevance, and with it, potential increased political support, something Bridge’s refusal had hitherto deprived them of. They have no more credibility than that.

However, in the event the two parties do talk after the election – making the currently almighty assumption that New Zealand First is even still in Parliament at all at that point given current polls – Muller will need to ensure the talks take place on National’s terms.

New Zealand First has been a past master at ensuring it holds all the cards whenever it has been involved in post-election negotiations, out of all proportion to the number of seats it holds.  Overall, that has been detrimental to the state of our democracy.

Over the next few weeks, Todd Muller will be seeking to subtly, but positively, portray himself as a different sort of leader from Jacinda Ardern.

One way he could do so would be to make it absolutely clear that any National-led government he forms, will be unashamedly his government, and not the plaything puppet of New Zealand First.  

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