There are many rumours but few tangible signs that anybody in National is about to try and depose Leader, Simon Bridges.
The problem is not so much whether he should go but rather when and who should replace him.
The usual suspects are already being talked about in various combinations as potential replacements; Paula Bennett, Mark Mitchell, Judith Collins, Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye.
The only truly credible contenders are Collins and Muller.
Usually, it would be expected that a deputy leader would be a front-runner. But that does not appear to be the case with Bennett.
There are some, for example, the back-at-work right-wing blogger, “Whaleoil”, aka Cameron Slater, who believe that she is behind some of the current unrest.
Anything is possible, but from what POLITIK knows of the National caucus, that even if she was trying to shoot for the top, she is seen as such a polarising figure that her ascension to the leadership would be highly unlikely.
Instead, her position would be at high risk were there to be a leadership change.
Mark Mitchell may be popular as a person, but he does not appear to be regarded by his colleagues as an MP of sufficient heft to lead the party.
And then there is Judith Collins.
On paper, she is the obvious choice; popular with the party, second only to Bridges as preferred leader in polling and the standout success as a front bench spokesperson since National went into Opposition. She was a highly competent Minister and has an interest in policy that extends from the economic to the social.
The single question that National MPs ask whenever her name comes up in connection with the leadership is the extent to which she is a team player. Her critics believe she has been behind the recent speculation about the leadership as they always believe she is behind it whenever there is speculation. Maybe.
But even if she was behind it, she would not have been alone. Bridges’ leadership has been a constant topic of conversation among National MPs for a year now.
It has been discussed with him at the party’s board and in the caucus and the complaints are always the same; that he is far too reactive and that he can be tone deaf to the political environment in which he is operating.
Collins is hugely popular among the party members, and they really are her power base rather than the caucus.
She seemed to acknowledge that weakness with the caucus by last year privately floating the proposition that she could work with Todd Muller as her deputy.
That would bring Muller’s liberalism to her more right-wing agenda; his connections with the party’s rural base to her connection with its urban support.
All this raises the big question about Muller; what does he want?
If you ask former Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, the answer is simple; he should be the next leader which would mean he would follow in a line of compassionate Catholics established by Bolger and continued by Bill English.
Muller doesn’t push that side of his character, but he has set out creating a persona for himself within the caucus as the champion of rural New Zealand; not in the “woolshed debater” tradition, but rather as someone who is willing to get to grips with the challenges of the next 30 years and address them.
He has won widespread respect across the party for the way he has handled the development of National’s support for the Zero Carbon Bill and now his role in the debate over the National Freshwater Policy Standard.
Though he is a social and fiscal conservative, he is a liberal on most other matters.
His supporters argue that as leader, he would take National into a new era and coupled with someone like Nikki Kaye (another policy thinker) as his deputy, he would redesign the party’s policy base for a post-Covid world.
Does he actually want to be leader? Even some of those close to him wonder whether he has got the “mongrel” to challenge Bridges and take over.
And even if he did, he is largely unknown outside the National Party and rural New Zealand.
So the case for either Collins or Muller is not yet compelling.
The current speculation about the leadership has been triggered by a deluge of 28,000 comments on a Bridges’ Facebook post criticising the Government’s decision to extend the Level Four lock-down to next Tuesday before moving to Level Three.
The huge number of comments seem at odds with his Facebook history which shows his posts attracting comments in the hundreds rather than the tens of thousands.
At least one National Twitter “troll”, Hamish Price, has suggested that many of the “likes” on the post are from an overseas troll farm.
But many of the commenters do appear to have connections either with Labour, unions or centre-left NGOs.
Facebook will not roll Bridges.
Who could, is the debate among MPs and party members who are talking about the issue.
Should the caucus move, or should they wait until there is pressure from the party to do so?
There is plenty of advice going to caucus members. Emails complaining about Bridges’ leadership are reported to be up and some younger party activists have circulated an Excel spreadsheet showing which MPs would be likely to lose their seats if the party polled at around 35 per cent in the coming election.
That figure is critical. Judith Collins has said publicly if she was leader and the party’s polling got that low she would resign the leadership. There is a hint there.
The party is reported to be on that figure in the private polling being done by both Labour and National though National MPs outside Bridges’ tight inner circle complain that they are never given access to it..
And so Bridges goes forward reliant on Paula Bennett and his most trusted ally, Todd McClay and party president, Peter Goodfellow to support his leadership.
But he could make things better for himself.
He could end what appears to be a closing of the doors to the leader’s office.
That might mean giving his caucus members more freedom to go public with policy proposals.
There is at least one document from a caucus spokesperson circulating which has a carefully considered policy response proposal to the Covid-19 crisis, which POLITIK understands the leader’s office will not agree to being made public.
POLITIK is aware of other MPs who have been told not to respond to media inquiries and not to issue press releases
The impression is of a very strong centralisation of control within the party.
There are also concerns that Bridges’ list of close advisors leaves out some of the party’s better brains like Gerry Brownlee, Nikki Kaye, Judith Collins and Todd Muller.
Prior to covid-19, many in the caucus believed that they were in with a big chance to form the next Government.
Some of the more experienced members of the caucus believe that by the time the election comes in September, a large number of business failures and a doubling of unemployment will mean the electorate will have started to turn away from Labour to National because they trust its economic management credentials.
In those circumstances, why rock the boat with a leadership change?
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