Opposition leader Chris Luxon will be breathing a sigh of relief after a comfortable poll result on Thursday. But the big question for National now is how it plans to claw the middle-ground back off Labour, writes political editor Jo Moir.

A new poll has closed the gap between the two major parties with Labour on 40 percent and National hitting 32.

Labour and the Greens can still govern on the 1News Kantar Public (formerly Colmar Brunton) poll with 63 of the 61 seats needed, but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s majority is diminishing as the Covid pandemic rages on.

National leader Christopher Luxon will take heart with his party up four points since the November poll and a decent showing in the preferred prime minister stakes, where he is sitting on 17 percent – up 13 points.

Ardern’s trajectory is heading in the opposite direction – down four points to 35 percent.

She told 1News the result is reflective of her Government having to make “some really hard calls’’ during the pandemic, and not all of those calls being liked by all voters.

She’s not wrong, and 35 percent is by no means a disastrous result.

While Labour dropped one point, it was the ACT Party’s vote that National ate into.

After dropping three points, ACT leader David Seymour’s party is now sitting on 11 percent, while the Green Party is steady on nine and Te Pāti Māori is up one point to 2 percent.

Luxon’s game plan over the next 18 months must involve more than just sucking up ACT’s centre-right vote.

But before he can start doing that, he needs to finally turn the page on National’s sideshow of implosions and own goals.

Luxon would have been furious, but certainly shouldn’t have been surprised, that the two main stories he had to respond to over the summer break were because of the poor judgment of one of his backbench MPs.

Harete Hipango is no stranger to controversy – she earned a reputation for being a lone wolf prone to going off-script during her first stint in Parliament, which ended at the 2020 election.

When long-serving MP Nick Smith exited the building last year, Hipango found herself next on the list.

But her return didn’t come without warning.

If Luxon wasn’t sure just how much of a liability she would be after reading the anonymous comments his caucus colleagues provided Newsroom about Hipango’s imminent arrival, he’s certainly aware now.

Hipango gets paid by the taxpayer, and when she is spending her time reading her Wikipedia page and asking her staff member to edit the bits she doesn’t like, she’s hardly busy representing her community.

The warning that she wasn’t a team player and talked outside of the party view resulted in a public stoning and forced early retirement of former leader, Todd Muller.

He fessed up to being one of the ones quoted after his own caucus buddy, Barbara Kuriger, dobbed him in to then-leader Judith Collins.

Turns out Muller and his like-minded colleagues were on the money, and under Luxon’s leadership Muller has been brought back into the fold.

The caucus has stayed on the same page and steered clear of any anti-vaccination or anti-mandate protests – even West Coast-based MP Maureen Pugh who eventually bowed to public and party pressure to get vaccinated has stayed out of the spotlight since getting double-jabbed.

Hipango, however, has been a magnet to the protests, turning up not once but twice to support them and posting it on social media.

In her latest faux pas she took umbrage over the controversy section on her Wikipedia page.

She instructed a staff member to edit the page, claimed to media she wasn’t aware that had happened, and then released a public statement after being caught out saying she regretted her actions.

While it’s not the biggest crime and Luxon is right when he says it’s not what New Zealanders are focused on, Hipango is hardly focused on the things that matter to voters either.

Hipango gets paid by the taxpayer, and when she is spending her time reading her Wikipedia page and asking her staff member to edit the bits she doesn’t like, she’s hardly busy representing her community.

That becomes a problem for Luxon because he’s responsible for caucus discipline and while he says he’s made his expectations “crystal clear” to his MPs, what’s actually crystal clear is that not everyone is listening.

The caucus heads to Queenstown this weekend for a two-day caucus retreat and Luxon told Newsroom it will be an opportunity to set out his expectations once again to MPs, and work out a plan of how to get from where they are now to a winnable position at next year’s election.

“We’ll talk about how I expect them to be out in the real world engaging with stakeholders and broader industry, voters, people and finding out what their needs are,’’ he said.

Over the summer, Luxon and his deputy, Nicola Willis, spent time working out how they would measure each MP’s performance in their portfolio and the key messages to deliver in his State of the Nation speech.

For now that speech has been put to one side as Luxon works out when is best to deliver it given the country has moved into the red traffic light, and much of the content has been overtaken by the evolving Omicron outbreak.

The move to red hasn’t put ACT leader David Seymour off, who will deliver his State of the Nation in Wellington next week.

That will give Luxon the headache of being second cab off the rank and potentially being accused of copying policy rather than coming up with his own.

Collins has laid low over the summer break and appears to be pulling her punches – at least for now.

Luxon told Newsroom he wants the party’s policy “sharpened up’’ this year.

“Sometimes we get lost in too much intellectualism …in a big policy document and a big book.

“Seventy-five pages isn’t particularly helpful; I just want to know what the four or five things are each MP is going to do in their portfolio that will make the biggest difference for New Zealanders.’’

One potential problem that hasn’t yet materialised is how Judith Collins’ return to Parliament will impact the party.

She’s been out of the spotlight since the caucus voted no confidence in her as leader, voting Luxon in as her successor just days later.

Collins has laid low over the summer break and appears to be pulling her punches – at least for now.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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