Bryce Edwards: Political Roundup – What’s going on in the National Party?

Bryce Edwards: Political Roundup – What’s going on in the National Party?

What exactly is plaguing the National Party? And would another leadership change help? These are the big and enduring questions that have surrounded the opposition party since they lost power in 2017.

For the best answers to these questions, it’s well worth reading the latest piece by Matthew Hooton in the re-launched Metro magazine, which has just put his column online – see: The National Party death spiral.

The short answer, in this excellent column that covers much ground about the state of the National Party, is that Labour has stolen the conservative party’s identity by governing like a National Government. Hooton asks: “with first Clark and now Ardern having aped National’s traditional governing style, what’s a poor conservative party to do?” The argument is that middle New Zealand, and even rightwing voters, are actually quite well catered for by Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson’s moderate and conservative style, leaving National without any great reason to exist.

There’s more to it than that – Hooton’s column also focuses on the demise of National as a mass-membership party with organic roots in society. He says that Steven Joyce’s restructuring of the party in the early 2000s helped push National into functioning more like a corporate entity. As a result, its traditional strength of being democratically embedded in the community was lost.

This made the party more vulnerable to capture by out-of-touch elites, including the “Christian evangelical” or Trump kind. In Hooton’s view, National has lost the strength of its traditional “coalition of liberals and conservatives, of John Keys and Bill Englishes.”

This is similar to the argument made this week in the Herald by political scientist Jennifer Curtin in a review of Simon Bridges’ new book – see: The National Party’s identity crisis (paywalled). Curtin suggests that the publication illustrates how, although Bridges himself nicely encapsulates the liberal-conservative hybrid, his own party is struggling to unite these ideological tendencies.

Here’s one of Curtin’s key points in the review: “Bridges’ confessions suggest National’s identity as a consensus-based, responsive and unified party may be at risk and, if so, this presents two challenges. The first is what political commentator Colin James refers to as National’s continuous need to keep the liberal and conservative tendencies in balance. The leadership of Key and Bill English provided a moderate and durable balance that appealed to a significant proportion of voters, both men and women, and from a wide range of age groups.”

The second challenge, Curtin says, is that “major parties need political leaders whose ‘brand’ reaches across demographics and regions, and supports the re-election of candidates in marginal electorates while also boosting the party vote. Alongside this, leaders must be able to build relationships with smaller parties that are needed to form a government.”

There is also an ideological aspect to National’s current existential crisis. It’s hard to know what National stands for any more. For example, on the key political issue of the economy – an area that National has traditionally been viewed as strong on – the party is now rather confused and unclear. The Herald’s Thomas Coughlan has recently written about this, saying that National no longer even focuses on this key issue – see: National has forgotten the economy, it needs to remember (paywalled).

Coughlan argues that National “must both make the case for why Labour isn’t running the economy properly and then make the case for why they’d do it better. So far, National hasn’t made strong arguments in for either.”

The problem, Coughlan explains, is that rightwing parties around the world are grappling with a whole new macroeconomic environment in which governments are expected to have large deficit spending. He points out that the new consensus of big spending is even shared by the global ratings agencies. So, what does National do? Coughlan says they may have to go down the same path as rightwing parties elsewhere (Britain; Australia) and become big spending nation builders.

Yet more rumours of a leadership coup

With the publication of Bridges’ new book, there’s been some suggestion that the former party leader wants his old job back, and is organising the numbers in caucus to roll Judith Collins. The plausibility of such a leadership change has been bolstered by continued caucus division and ill-discipline, along with some controversial performances by Collins over the last fortnight.

The rumours of a leadership change heated up over the weekend. Herald political columnist Shane Te Pou, who is seen to be closely aligned to the Labour Party, published a number of tweets on Saturday: “Nat MPs doing the numbers folks the spill is on”; saying deputy leader Shane Reti had “turned against his leader”, and that “The deal is he goes as deputy but keeps health”. Te Pou also claimed that Chris Bishop was being given the finance portfolio and being made Shadow Leader of the House again. And he later tweeted: “you just wait… you won’t have to wait long”.

Te Pou’s tweets, and Collins’ reaction, can be found in Dan Satherley’s story for Newshub: Judith Collins blames latest leadership spill rumours on Labour ‘activists’.

A fellow communications advisor, David Cormack, also tweeted on Saturday that a coup was happening, and he claimed that a number of National MPs had informed him of this. He has since written: “This time I’m still fairly sure it is happening, just in slow motion. It seems Bridges is running the numbers.”

On Saturday the Herald published two influential analysis pieces which also conveyed that a leadership change is on its way. First, political editor Claire Trevett explained that Collins is running out of time, and the caucus might soon want to replace her with Bridges – see: Has Delta sped up the clock on Judith Collins’ leadership and what it will take for Simon Bridges to roll her (paywalled).

According to Trevett, Collins has recently displayed fatally low levels of political judgment – in reshuffling her caucus during a crisis (and creating internal enemies), fighting against the establishment of a virtual Parliament, and then a combative interview on TVNZ’s Breakfast. Trevett says these missteps have “turned vague mutterings about a leadership coup into something a little more serious.”

On top of this is continued poor polling: “They need someone who can get them back to at least the mid-30s and they need that someone before 2023. Collins has had 18 months and while Labour has fallen, National has not risen.”

In terms of polling, this is what Trevett says is likely to trigger a leadership change: “If National gets around 25 or 26 per cent in the next round of polls, MPs are muttering about whether it will spell the end of her leadership – even as soon as October. That will particularly be the case if Act continues to rise – and nudges toward the 20 per cent mark.”

Trevett says that Bridges is the only candidate to replace Collins, and he is especially viable if he can get the backing of the liberal faction led by the disgruntled Chris Bishop: “Not everybody will think Bridges is the best choice, but he may be the only Not Collins choice. Bridges could probably get the numbers he needed now; many of his old supporters are still in caucus. But he will not want to move unless he can get almost all MPs, bar Collins’ rusted-on supporters, to back the change. That will partly depend on the liberal wing – MPs such as Chris Bishop, Nicola Willis and Erica Stanford. The first two engineered his downfall in 2020. But political desperation can trump old grievances. In that respect, Collins may have done more to help secure Bridges his numbers than Bridges has done himself. Her reshuffle saw Bishop stripped of his treasured position of Shadow Leader of the House – a key strategic position.”

But does Bridges really want the job? And is he capable of winning public support? This is what Trevett says: “There also still remains the question whether he can convince the wider public he is the man for the job. That’s what he’s been beavering away at for the last 18 months, a one-man humanising mission on social media, the television shows, the book. Do not believe his schtick about his new book being ‘too honest’ to be a pitch for another go at the leadership.”

Fellow Herald journalist Fran O’Sullivan also wrote on Saturday about Collins losing her grip on the leadership position, saying that her “bombastic flailing about is just simply absurd” – see: Judith Collins is flailing closer to politics’ death zone (paywalled).

Like Trevett, O’Sullivan points to Collins’ recent ill-judged performances, but also suggests that she’s been overly authoritarian in her caucus management: “she is proving remarkably small-minded when it comes to practising free and open discussions within her own caucus, holding MPs to a ridiculously strong whip. Stripping Bishop of his shadow Leader of the House position simply looked vindictive. His sin was not to toe the party line when the caucus decided to vote against a ban on conversion therapy — something he injudiciously railed against in a conversation that later leaked.”

The argument is also made that Collins has allowed National to lose its liberal support: “The polls show that National’s support skews toward males. Collins herself polarises and does not attract a strong female vote. The leadership of the party is perceived as being increasingly out of touch with its liberal and youth wings.”

In terms of Collins’ likely replacement, O’Sullivan is less clear. She says that Christopher Luxon is not ready to lead. But she draws attention to the leadership potential of the two liberal National MPs Nicola Willis and Erica Stanford, and she suggests that the latter might be a good running partner for Bridges.

It’s the tension between the conservative and liberal factions that is producing problems for Collins and caucus harmony. The extent of the disunity in the National caucus has also been highlighted by Thomas Coughlan, who wrote recently about the severe tensions and aggression apparently playing out in the MPs’ meetings – see: Knives out in National, as caucus struggles to show unity despite obvious division (paywalled).

The big issue creating ongoing friction is National’s orientation to the vote against a ban on conversion therapy, with liberal MPs like Bishop, Willis and Stanford being unhappy about being forced to vote against the bill, which spilt over into the public eye during the recent annual party conference.

Coughlan reports on how Collins has recently reacted to their obvious unhappiness: “One source told the Herald that Collins ‘completely lost it’ at Bishop. Another source described her tirade as ‘f***ing ballistic’. It was said to be the most tense caucus meeting of Collins’ reign. Stanford was allegedly given an unsparing dressing down for being upset over the way the vote played out.”

This descent into division and ineffectiveness is something of a tragedy according to a recent Otago Daily Times editorial, which argues that the Opposition is “squandering its political legacy, and offering little to suggest National is a government in waiting. Politics is the poorer for that” – see: Gloom continues to hang over National.

Here’s the newspaper’s main point about the need for a strong Opposition: “Ultimately those who suffer the most from the ongoing implosion of the National Party, apart from its long-suffering loyalists, are the New Zealand public. The parliamentary system is predicated on the Opposition placing the governing party’s policies and actions under robust scrutiny, and in a country where the courts cannot strike down unconstitutional laws an effective opposition party is all the more important. To ensure good governance New Zealand needs alternative points of view, different and differing voices, and detailed analysis of policy.”

Finally, for recent satire about National’s leadership, see Victor Billot’s An ode for Judith Collinsand Steve Braunias’ The Secret Diary of The Collins Gang (paywalled).