As National’s moment of reckoning draws near, the identity of its next leader appears far from a foregone conclusion. The caucus faces a choice between a known quantity (for better and worse) and a tempting risk, Sam Sachdeva writes

The Covid-19 traffic light system may not kick into effect until Friday, but Christopher Luxon and Simon Bridges’ drag race for the leadership of the National Party waits for no green light.

The party’s 33 MPs will gather at Parliament for yet another secret ballot on Tuesday afternoon, with the seasoned Tauranga MP and his fresh-faced Botany rival vying to show they can restore the party to its glory days after the misery of the past four years.

Luxon seems to have the edge, with Judith Collins and her backers seeming to coalesce behind the former chief executive’s campaign – little surprise, given the deep antipathy which exists between Collins and Bridges – but hopes of an uncontested coronation for the new leader are diminishing by the hour.

For the former Air New Zealand chief executive, it is a potentially rapid ascent which he has had thrust upon him.

Former Prime Minister and mentor Sir John Key reportedly counselled him to take his time before making any moves, while Luxon had seemed to make a virtue of flying below the radar, not making the rounds of the parliamentary press gallery in the way of other MPs with high ambitions.

It has proved difficult to pin him down even in the portfolios where he is meant to be seeking attention, as Newsroom’s political editor Jo Moir found when attempting to speak to him earlier this year about his iwi development portfolio and the Government’s controversial He Puapua report.

Luxon’s lack of political experience is undeniable, a factor he himself has raised in the past when rebuffing leadership talk – but even then, it is possible to underestimate just how green he is.

Luxon himself is a façade of sorts, with “shiny and nice” Key 2.0 branding but no meaningful voting record to judge, or political ‘scalps’ to show his prowess. 

The day of Collins’ ousting from the leadership coincided with the one-year anniversary of his swearing in as an MP.

Since then, he has asked just four primary questions of ministers in the House – all in the backend of Question Time, rather than primetime – while he has delivered only two general debate speeches, one of which hinted at some repressed childhood trauma from Disneyland.

“I don’t know how you all feel, but I can tell you how I feel: I feel like living in New Zealand, under this Government, is like walking the main street of Disneyland at the moment.

“As you walk down that main street, you see a candy store, you see an emporium, you see the saloon, and you get to the end of the street and you look back, and you think ‘It looks shiny and nice’, and what you see is a façade, and there’s Mickey behind the façade having a smoke, saying ‘Go away, kids’.”

National’s caucus room may be far from The Happiest Place On Earth, but Luxon himself is a façade of sorts, with “shiny and nice” Key 2.0 branding but no meaningful voting record to judge, or political ‘scalps’ to show his prowess. 

Of course, that may be part of his appeal to a party which has just got rid of a leader who voters knew all too well.

That blank slate also offers a leg up on his main rival: the responses in a Newshub-Reid Research poll last week asking the public to describe Luxon in one word (‘don’t know’, ‘unknown’, ‘who’)  are a step up on those for Bridges shortly before his demise last year (‘idiot’, ‘average’, ‘dickhead’).

Luxon’s maiden speech included hints of what a National Party led by him could look like: there were nods towards blue-greens as he discussed the importance of climate change, while sections about the social safety net and economic productivity suggested something closer to the business-friendly, centre-right approach of Key.

But there are still a fair few question marks about exactly how he would run his party and, if successful, the country.

Simon Bridges’ case for the leadership is predicated on his prior experience in the role – but that seems to neglect the vastly different circumstances in which he assumed power the first time around. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

In contrast, Bridges is almost literally an open book, having published his non-political political memoir earlier this year.

He understands the party’s internal dynamics well, while as conservative commentator Liam Hehir wrote, the dynamics of the Covid response would be much more favourable for him now than in the early days of the pandemic.

For all the confidence that Key’s endorsement and a high-powered corporate career will provide, some MPs must surely fear a repeat of Todd Muller’s disastrous stint as leader.

Like Luxon, Muller came into the role having worked for some of New Zealand’s largest companies – but despite having had six years in Parliament to Luxon’s one, he found the demands of leading the Opposition too much to bear.

A Bridges revival would bring his own problems, though.

While his backers point to the days when he had National ahead of Labour in the polls, the Tauranga MP inherited a party already holding a lead and fuelled by a sense they had been cheated out of power.

Bridges may have been able to keep National in the 40s before the pandemic, but merely holding your ground is not enough for a party now on the wrong side of 30 percent, and his abysmal favourability ratings the first time around suggest the party may have been steady despite, not because, of him.

Then there is Collins. Luxon would be wise to take any promises of good behaviour from her with a heavy pinch of salt, but there is no way in hell any such commitment would be forthcoming for Bridges.

Given the drastic steps she took to sink Bridges when she was still the leader, what might she resort to with nothing else to lose?

The party’s MPs and supporters insist that whoever wins, unity will be at the forefront of everyone’s minds…that may be so, but it should have been the case under Muller, and Collins, yet infighting trumped what was best for the party.

Whoever takes up the reins will face the difficult but necessary task of building a Team of Rivals – a challenge which would arguably be more pronounced for Luxon, with Bridges having shown a front bench role will not deter him from fomenting mischief against a leader.

Collins may need to be provided with something suitably senior given her apparent desire to stay the course, while liberal MPs Chris Bishop, Nicola Willis and Erica Stanford – among the party’s strongest performers – could reasonably expect promotions of some sort (there has been some talk about Willis taking on the deputy leadership, although that could be complicated by the claims of whichever of Bridges and Luxon loses).

Interim leader Dr Shane Reti, a strong performer in the health portfolio and one of very few Māori faces in the caucus, also merits a senior position.

It gives precious little space for whoever does take over to put their own people around them, although that is a perennial problem for political leaders in a diverse caucus.

Then there is the challenge of taking on Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who while bruised by the Delta outbreak and pre-existing problems with her Government delivering on policy promises, remains popular with the wider electorate and a very adept politician.

The party’s MPs and supporters insist that whoever wins, unity will be at the forefront of everyone’s minds, given the prospect of electoral oblivion.

That may be so, but it should have been the case under Muller, and Collins, yet infighting trumped what was best for the party.

Under Key’s prime ministership, one National MP described the caucus atmosphere as akin to a benign dictatorship, with individual liberties sacrificed for broader prosperity.

If Luxon does take on the leadership, he will need to succeed where his mentor did to have any chance of repeating his electoral triumphs.

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

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