The National Party is six months into its rebuild following a disastrous election result and once again leaking and leadership rumours are making headlines, writes political editor Jo Moir
This time a year ago National was about to embark on an eight-month period it would rather forget. Simon Bridges was the Opposition leader and the country was still in Level 4 lockdown.
Bridges was about to face a storm of criticism, including from his own party faithful, after publishing comments on Facebook criticising the Government’s one-week extension of the lockdown.
Polls started to show Bridges’ favourability was at all-time lows and by May 22, Todd Muller and his supporters had rolled Bridges. That would end up being one of the shortest tenures in New Zealand political history with Muller resigning after just 53 days, citing mental health reasons.
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Judith Collins stepped up to the helm and led National into its second-worst election result – not helped by leaking and dissent within the caucus.
Fast forward to 2021, and in just two weeks the National Party will kick off its regional conferences ahead of its annual convention.
While some MPs have been getting good traction on issues including housing, immigration and Covid-19 border testing, once again questions around the party’s leadership and leaks have come to the surface.
Newsroom spoke to a number of National MPs, on the condition of anonymity, about why the party had found itself back in such familiar territory after spending the best part of six months insisting that sort of behaviour would no longer be tolerated.
One MP told Newsroom nothing would change “until some in the caucus work out they’re not the leader and are never going to be again” – a comment clearly targeted at former leader Simon Bridges.
In recent months, Bridges has attracted attention for cavalier comments about the leadership and his own ambitions.
On Tuesday he was clearly enjoying his time in front of the cameras insisting speculation he and colleague Chris Luxon might be in contention for the leadership was “just chatter’’.
Asked if he and Luxon had discussed the idea, he replied, “I talk with lots of colleagues, I can’t be expected to remember everything I say.’’
He also answered a question about his support of Collins’ leadership with a vague, “I support Judith Collins at this time’’.
Speaking to Newsroom, one MP described Bridges’ behaviour as “bravado’’ saying he no longer had support in the party.
There are few levers available to pull MPs into line in those sorts of scenarios, without further destabilising the leadership.
Caucus having zero tolerance for it and calling it out is the only real option.
As one MP said, “We won’t be in government in two-and-a-half years’ time if we carry on like this’’.
In the case of Luxon, much of the chatter about his leadership ambitions is outside of his control.
Political commentators on the left will continue to talk about his desire to be leader because it has the effect of making the National Party look shambolic, even if Luxon is doing nothing to actively pursue it.
It’s understood speculation of his leadership ambitions concerned him enough that he decided to front-foot it and go directly to Collins to discuss it.
Having two former leaders in the caucus, coupled with being in Opposition and the number of MPs shrinking from 55 to 33 doesn’t make it easy to keep everyone in line.
And given the way Bridges was rolled in a very knives-at-dawn manner by Muller and his supporters, there’s still distrust within the caucus between the two competing sides.
As one MP put it, “When poison gets into the system it takes a while to get it out’’.
Public polling is irregular, but those published since the election in October haven’t been kind to National.
While some MPs told Newsroom that was to be expected while the party worked through the board’s review of the election and what went wrong, others said it pointed to the poor performance of the leader and those in the top five.
One MP said Collins had put her own loyalists in the roles of chief of staff and deputy chief of staff and there was nothing to show for their work either.
Another said many in the caucus hadn’t “forgotten” the actions of some of their colleagues in the lead-up to and during the election campaign last year.
One thing is clear – party members are tired of the leaking and undermining.
Never was that made clearer than when they gave a standing ovation to former leader Sir John Key at November’s convention after he said, “If you can’t quit leaking, quit the party”.
Key’s way of doing things has been somewhat revived under Collins’ leadership, with her reinstating performance reviews for all MPs.
Ahead of portfolio allocations she individually met with every MP about their ambitions.
In the coming months, she has a half-hour one-on-one meeting with them all again to talk about their progress and what they’ve actioned so far.
It’s a very business-style approach to politics and MPs spoken to said it was a good move by Collins to take an approach used by Key in government and replicate it in opposition.
While MPs agree leadership chat is inevitable in Opposition, the consensus seems to be that it is too early for those sorts of conversations and a more suitable time would be later this year or next.
In the meantime, the National Party has much to do on where it stands in tough areas like climate change, the economy, and the Treaty of Waitangi.
And once it works that out, it needs to give the mass of voters who left National at the last election a reason to consider coming back.