So this is what the Wellington political beltway feels like on the inside, and it’s pretty much exactly what you always suspected: a chamber of horrors, one of the worst places in the civilised world, a sealed room marked NO ONE GETS OUT OF HERE ALIVE. Blue Blood: The inside story of the National Party in crisis by Andrea Vance is a descent into a circle of Hell where lost souls function to create, maintain and nourish a crisis. Here, then, is the swamp; and Vance has fun draining it.
The basic narrative of Blue Blood is old news. Six National Party leaders in seven years, at least one of them lost their cotton-pickin’ mind, the best they can do right now is Christopher Luxon. You know all this but it’s an exciting read. You come for backstabbing, and Vance identifies the fingerprints. You come for naked power, and Vance shows the emperors without clothes or shame. You ought not come for a far-reaching intellectual analysis of political process. Journalism has its limits. It grabs at clichés and stuffs them into the suitcase of every sentence. Vance writes, “A change in leadership has wiped clean the blood from the floor.”
The tone is established on page one. Make way for deathless journalese: “As the sun dipped below the Pacific Ocean horizon”, “sustained attacks”, “damaging headlines”, “dogged by the sense”, “creating a storm”, “beset by details”. Oh well. You get used to it. Stuff reads like this every day of the week. Blue Blood is the tabloid sequel to Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics: some of the same cast of ratfuckers, another determined roll in the mucilaginous slime of the National Party, but this time told by a Stuff journo. Hager was an outsider, in whispering and high-minded cahoots with a hacker going by the mysterious nom de plume of Rawshark. As a reporter and a columnist, Vance works on the inside; she knows her subject, and has gained the trust of other insiders who share their insights into the National Party’s years of wildly entertaining collapse.
The book makes good use of interviews with John Key (who doesn’t say much worth listening to, as ever, although he does reveal that his wife Bronagh was one of the first to spot the promise – and the danger – of Jacinda Ardern), Simon Bridges (butter doesn’t melt in his mouth, and he claims he only ever behaved with the noblest of intentions; fortunately many observers are on hand to stick it to him in Blue Blood), Nick Smith (consistently really interesting, and abrasive; this guy should write his own memoirs), and Chris Finlayson (only ever downright fascinating, and provocative as hell; his forthcoming memoir promises to be a must-read). There are also anonymous remarks by “sources” and “insiders” and “aides” and “party staffers”. Example: an “insider” recalls, “The moment she [Ardern] was made the Leader of the Opposition, my sphincter tightened.” It would be good to put a name to the sphincter but such is the nature of concealment.
The early section of the book is necessary – it begins at the beginning, when Key decided to step down – but also very boring. Nothing much happens. English takes over as leader. A “source” tells Vance that Steven Joyce wanted the job, and went around grumpily saying, “Why the fuck not me?” Good question, actually; the ghost of a man who would be king haunts the early pages of Blue Blood, with National Party operative Ben Thomas saying of Joyce, “He was the best chief press sec that John Key ever had.” He meant it as a compliment of Joyce’s PR skills. But everyone hated his dictatorial, know-all guts, and English was the obvious choice. He performed well on the campaign trail against a rampant Ardern. Poor old English. He got so close, and then Peters made him unhappen.
And so the book begins in earnest on page 93, with National in Opposition, and English wondering whether to stay on. He didn’t have to wonder long. “The knives were out,” Vance writes. The sharpest daggers were held by Bridges, according to “a party staffer”, who tells Vance, “Simon and his crew were agitating.” So many agitations were to follow; and no one agitated more than that singular agitator, he of the three first names, the batshit-crazy badass from Botany, last seen being thrown out like trash by Tova O’Brien (“You’re dreaming, mate!”), the dark star of Blue Blood, Jami-Lee fucking Ross.
“You sold your soul for political ambition,” Tova said to Ross in his famous exit interview. What soul? Ross comes across in Blue Blood not so much as a political animal but a kind of political robot, programmed to search and destroy.
Bridges tells Vance he thought Ross was gay. Most everyone else assumed it, too, before he was shamed for his treatment of women. He came across so camp. Vance reports that he loved Glee and caramel frappes, and also notes that he had Darth Vader’s theme music as his ringtone. Ross, the robot villain. Finlayson: “Sometimes his voice would get very low and he’d say, ‘You can’t cross me and get away with it.’ He was basically in a dream world.”
Easy, and proper, to make fun of Ross. He really was a total wretch. But who ran him, who made use of him? Nick Smith tells Vance it was Bridges. “Jami-Lee turns up in my office and says…if I don’t support Simon he is going to destroy me.” Smith adds that he wasn’t the only MP heavied by Bridges’s Glee-watching goon. And yet Bridges claims, “I don’t perceive there was particularly bad blood.” His mouth is so smeared with butter that it’s amazing he can get the words past his lips. We are supposed to think well of Bridges these days – fun dude, wrote a self-effacing memoir – but Blue Blood suggests he operated as one of National’s many and varied nasty pieces of work.
We are also instructed to think kindly of Todd Muller. The official line on Muller – he had mental health issues, and we must be tolerant, sympathetic, understanding – somehow absolves him from any wrong-doing in his brief and spectacularly useless few weeks as National leader. He had panic attacks. Poor old stunned Muller (quality pun courtesy of Claire Trevett at the Herald). Yet the book reminds us that he was also an arrogant sonofabitch who acted ruthlessly when he toppled Bridges, and deluded himself that he was a new Key. Muller wasn’t even a new Cunliffe. “I will bring my all to it,” he said, but his all was nothing. He was a complete bum from the moment he got the top job. Vance: “By 8pm on the night Muller took over the leadership he had retired to his Wellington flat for a meal of reheated chicken and coleslaw with Michelle. His team was incredulous. It was the most important day of his career, and he was knocking off comparatively early.” It was the Coleslaw of Doom.
Muller quit after 53 days. There were other losers, including deputy leader Nikki Kaye. Nick Smith offers a succinct precis of her contribution: “She didn’t know anything.” An anonymous MP tells Vance that Kaye would phone “at two or three in the morning to talk about something that she’s just thought of”. Imagine picking up in the middle of the night to hear your party’s deputy leader raving down the line to express something that might have a vague resemblance to a thought. There are around a dozen instances in Blue Blood that could qualify as defining moments of National’s long downward spiral and the revelation of these 3am phone calls (“Nikki? Is something wrong?”) has one of the strongest claims.
Muller was replaced by Collins. It inspires Vance to write the best sentence in her book. Nick Smith tells her that Collins taking over as National leader “was about who could try and save the house”. Vance: “But Collins could not save the house – instead, she burned it down.” If the chapters on Muller are a kind of riff on mental illness, the chapters on Collins, the madwoman in National’s attic, read like satire. Her witless election campaign (Vance reports her exclaiming after the fiasco of her walkabout on Ponsonby Road, “Dear God!”), her nutty ejaculations (“My husband is Samoan, so talofa!”), her crazed email charging Bridges with serious misconduct (Vance: “Brownlee initially thought it was spam”)…Collins lasted about as long as anyone expected. And so to Luxon, and the present.
Much of Blue Blood is an anatomy of power, and the attempts to undermine it. Vance is a close observer and obeys the golden rule of all journalism: accuracy. But where is the wider scrutiny of why it was that a great many people in the National Party acted so ruinously, so grubbily, and, more than anything else, so selfishly? Was it the culture, was it the ideology? Was it the lack of anything resembling culture and ideology? Vance reports what happened, and how it happened. Why it happened is an open question.
Blue Blood makes you wonder whether there was some kind of moral sickness at work. The head was diseased, but so was the body. Forget the graspings of Bridges, Muller, Collins, Luxon; Vance also tells of the graspings of lesser creatures, such as the so-called “Four Amigos” of 2014 (Mark Mitchell, Alfred Ngaro, Chris Bishop, Todd Muller) who formed “an alliance that would dramatically shape the fortunes of the party”. Bishop was the only amigo worth a damn. The other three were vainglorious incompetents with scarcely a policy between them. By all means consider this description as another defining characteristic of National’s collapse. Maybe forget notions of moral rot; National have stood exposed for much of the past six years as a bunch of not entirely stupid people with entirely stupid ideas.
Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts, imaginatively; the Roman emperor Elagabalus (203–222 AD) smothered chosen guests to death beneath piles of rose petals. The exercises and abuses of power in Blue Blood are generally very petty although Collins, true to form, contrived to make everyone around her miserable. It’s a book of unhappiness. No one achieves greatness. No one maintains any dignity. Few had any to begin with; Hamilton East MP David Bennett appears throughout the book as a low-hanging villain, punished by Key for “alleged late-night antics in the Beehive’s third-floor bar”, dismissed by Chris Finlayson as a moron, and caught replying to a constituent who urged the party to roll Bridges, “Yeah, working on it.” Aides and sources and staffers and even people with names toil in the background, maddened by their masters. There scuttles Matthew Hooton, Muller’s blundering amanuensis; there sighs Janet Wilson, who went to work for Collins, and foolishly offered the very thing Collins has always loathed: sound advice. All the while, the vultures in the Press Gallery keep their beady little eyes on the thing they want most in life: scalps.
You can lead a journalist to a longer deadline but you can’t make them think. Two recent biographies of Ardern (by Madeleine Chapman and Michelle Duff) were thin, essentially no more than junk. Blue Blood has a lot more substance. Vance wanders in a daze towards every available cliché in New Zealand political journalism (“gaffes”, “doubled-down”, etc) but her book is packed with incident and drama, meanness and madness, obsessively recorded. She thanks political journo Katie Bradford in the Acknowledgements: “Yes, we talk about life and other things, but it always drifts back to politics.” Politics, always politics; everyone in the pages of this remarkable story of power and powerlessness is equally obsessed, held captive, like sleepers unable – and unwilling – to wake from a terrible dream.
Blue Blood: The inside story of the National Party in crisis by Andrea Vance (HarperCollins, $35) is available in bookstores nationwide.