Bryce Edwards: Luxon’s leadership under threat

Bryce Edwards: Luxon’s leadership under threat

The National Party will be desperate to avoid a repeat of the leadership musical chairs of 2020 when they rolled Simon Bridges as leader, replaced him with Todd Muller, only for Muller to step down after 53 days, leading to Judith Collins taking the party into the election.

But National will currently be considering whether a move needs to be made against leader Christopher Luxon, who continues to struggle and stumble. The party must be tempted to replace him with his high-performing deputy, Nicola Willis, who might be better able to take on Prime Minister Chris Hipkins.

Panicked changes of leadership don’t generally project stability and unity to the public. However, proponents of a leadership change in National might well point to Labour changing from Andrew Little to Jacinda Ardern just seven weeks before the 2017 election, which turned out rather well.

Poor polls for National and Luxon

Luxon’s leadership simply isn’t working. He had a good year in 2022. He managed to unify the party, and provided a fresh contrast to Ardern. But that novelty appears to have faded fast, especially now that Ardern has left.

What’s more, although Luxon managed to significantly improve National’s polling in 2022, the improvements have stalled, and his personal poll ratings will be cause for alarm in the party.

All recent opinion polls have shown support for National declining. Yesterday’s Curia Research Poll showed National fell by nearly three points and Labour rose by the same amount, putting both major parties on 34 per cent.

Luxon’s preferred Prime Ministerial support has also declined in recent polls. But the more concerning result in the Curia poll was Luxon’s net favourability rating (the percentage of voters with a favourable opinion minus those with an unfavourable opinion). Luxon fell to -5 per cent, down from -1 in the previous month. In contrast, Hipkins’ net favourability was +27 per cent.

Other recent polls have had similar bad news for National. According to the last Newshub poll, while 53 per cent said they trusted Hipkins, only 37 per cent said the same for Luxon (with 44 per cent saying they actually distrusted Luxon). This is a serious problem because leaders who aren’t trusted struggle to win elections.

Luxon still stumbling and failing to respond to change

National Party insider Matthew Hooton recently wrote a paywalled column titled, “Don’t rule out National leadership change before election”. He argues that “Luxon is very much struggling in the job”, and as a result “National should be very worried”. He suggests that Nicola Willis would do a much better job.

Although having an ugly leadership spill could be a “disaster” for National, Hooton says a carefully managed change could become a necessity if the polls continue to show Luxon is not working out: “If, three months hence, he is still struggling to connect and the polls are consistently suggesting National-Act will fall short of 61 seats then perhaps National will need to consider a sophisticated, managed leadership handover of the sort Labour has achieved.”

Luxon probably has less time to turn things around than Hooton suggests. If by Easter the polls have continued their slide for National and Luxon, there will be a determination to fix the problem. And the advantages of doing so sooner rather than later will be clear to National MPs – they won’t want to leave a change of leader until they are properly on the campaign trail.

National’s Hipkins problem

Confounding expectations, new prime minister Chris Hipkins has had an amazingly successful start, grabbing the agenda, and projecting his government as something new. He’s hardly put a foot wrong since being carefully placed into the role at the start of the year.

In contrast, commentators are describing Luxon as looking “flat-footed” in response to the arrival of Hipkins into the top job. And with his bonfire of reforms, Hipkins has been removing all the unpopular and distinctive policies that differentiated National from Labour.

Luxon had been doing really well for months, banging on about the cost of the living, and Ardern was on the back foot. Now, Hipkins has fully embraced economic issues, leaving National behind.

Until January, Luxon was also doing well with his strategy of appealing to a growing section of the public that was willing to support “Anyone But Ardern”. As Hooton argues, Luxon was running as the “Not Jacinda” candidate. But Hipkins has taken over that role. And he’s getting in first, rolling out a reversal of the things National said they would jettison.

So Luxon’s “Anyone But Labour” strategy is no longer working. He had previously banked on essentially sleepwalking to victory with a “small target strategy” of having so few policies or contentiously rightwing stances, that the public would vote National in by default to get rid of the Ardern-led administration.

Unfortunately for Luxon, the whole electoral landscape has now changed with Hipkins at the top. As Stuff political editor Luke Malpass explained in the weekend, “The problem with politics is that events – such as the shock resignation of a prime minister – require swift re-evaluation of strategies and plans.” But the National leader seems incapable of adjusting his strategy.

Similarly, on Friday Matthew Hooton wrote that “The National Party remains committed to its existing strategy despite the Prime Minister’s radical repositioning of Labour”.

Hooton complains that National under Luxon appears to just want to emulate John Key’s successful but empty 2008 election campaign that promised “ambition” and a “brighter future”. But Hooton says that in 2023 voters are furious about “empty sloganeering”, so this simply won’t work. Instead, voters want “substance”, and Hooton says Luxon “has said or done nothing so far to give voters confidence he has any.”

Herald political editor Claire Trevett has also written about how Luxon desperately needs to lift his game. She says, “It’s no longer enough for Luxon to rely on people getting sick of Labour or to roll out the same old lines he was using against Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – that the Labour Government cannot deliver and is out of touch with New Zealanders’ concerns.”

She says that although Hipkins has appeared obviously hungry to win, “Luxon has not. He needs to change that, and he needs to change it fast.”

Luxon’s authenticity problem

Rightwing political columnist Damien Grant says the problem with Luxon is his lack of authenticity. Grant has painted a picture of a leader who will just do and say whatever he thinks Middle New Zealand wants him to, and ultimately the public doesn’t respect that. For example, “When Luxon masquerades on Halloween as a McDonald’s cashier, even at the store where he once worked, it does not ring true. That isn’t who he is now.”

Grant says the public would trust Luxon more if he stopped pretending to be something he isn’t: “The National leader appears to be reflecting back to us what he thinks we want to see. He assumes, or his handlers do, that Kiwis want a salt-of-the earth type with vaguely feminist views on rugby and who likes a beer and holidays in Te Puke. Maybe we do, but Luxon is not that guy, and we all know it.” Grant says, “The more we get to know him, the less we want him as Prime Minister.”

Claire Trevett also suggests Luxon is missing the mark in the way he presents himself, saying that he “primps his corporate credentials as an asset but also sounds like a corporate machine in doing so.”

The pressure is on for Luxon to step up

While Luxon’s recent performance has been mediocre and has seen him struggling for relevancy, unfortunately for him, he’s regularly outshone by Act leader David Seymour.

If he is to avoid being rolled, the National leader now needs to step up. His first opportunity to do so is today – with Parliament sitting for the first time this year.

Then on Sunday he is giving his long-promised state of the nation speech in Auckland. Expectations for substantial policy announcements are great. As Trevett writes, it “needs to be compelling.”

It will need to paint a full picture of what a National government would do about the cost-of-living crisis. Luxon has been doing well to highlight Labour’s shortcomings on this, but the time has come for him to outline his alternative approach.

Even in the short-term, the public needs to know what National is going to campaign on this year. Below is a leaked communication from inside National about what they have been planning as their key messages to voters in the campaign:

“National will deliver results so that all Kiwis get ahead, and New Zealand achieves its potential. In an unstable international environment, National will strengthen New Zealand’s economy so we can:

Without credible policies to accompany these talking points, they will read merely as platitudes.

At the moment, all the initiative is with Hipkins and Labour. Luxon needs to find some inspiration fast. A mediocre performance from Luxon will no longer cut it, and he is in danger of being only a few bad opinion polls away from Nicola Willis being elevated to the top job.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.  


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