Todd Muller with wife, Michelle, in Parliament's Grand Hall en route to his first press conference as leader.

One of National’s leading liberals, Amy Adams, is planning to rescind her retirement decision and return to Parliament on National’s list to help Todd Muller.

POLITIK understands that a weekend of negotiation has led to Adams confirming her return and the party, in turn, promising her a high place on the list.

It is understood she will play a key role in policy development.

Meanwhile Gerry Brownlee is apparently set to replace Paula Bennett as chair of the campaign committee. He wasn’t responding to questions aboutt this last night.

Otherwise Muller is expected to announce his new caucus lineup today and there will be a number of new faces like Nicola Willis and Andrew Bayly moved up the hierarchy.

POLITIK Amy Adams leads Nikki Kaye, Chris Bishop, Maggie Barry and Tim McIndoe to announce her candidacy for National’s leadership in February 2018. Kaye and Bishop were key members of the Muller campaign team along with Adams.

What all this shows is that Muller’s election as National Leader is more than a reaction against Simon Bridges’ abrasive political style.

It represents a return by National to its centrist roots. That much has already been acknowledged by two other party leaders, David Seymour and Winston Peters.

And as party members went to the phones on Friday to call party offices with offers of money or to volunteer, the overwhelming emotion, one party official told POLITIK, was “relief”.

That relief was over a concern about Bridges’ ‘leadership that has been evident among party and caucus members for the past year and also a concern about where the party was headed.

Muller’s victory was built on that, but it was built by a team of master political operators.

Sitting quietly in the back of the Legislative Council Chamber on Friday during Todd Muller’s press conference was one of National’s most highly regarded political operators; Tim Hurdle.

A former staffer for Gerry Brownlee and Stephen Joyce, Hurdle now runs the New Zealand arm of Crosby Textor. He is also closely connected to Topham Guerin, the social media firm headed by former Young Nats President, Sean Topham, which includes Boris Johnson among its clients.

Ironically he held office in the Young Nats with Simon Bridges in the late nineties.

He was not the only former Parliamentray staffer involved in the Muller campaign. Others, more junior, were working in the background on things like logistics to get votes to Wellington for the caucus meeting or preparing data and arguments to persuade wavering MPs.

POLITIK Todd Muller’s wife, Michelle, with Nicola Willis at Muller’s press conference on Friday

Meanwhile, the MP team led by Nikki Kaye but including Amy Adams, Nicola Willis and Chris Bishop focused on winning the votes and getting ready for what they always believed would be a Muller victory.

Kaye was critical.  The party’s leading liberal is also a ferocious worker and organiser but equally, a polarising figure.  There was never any doubt though that if Muller ever did stand for the leadership, she would be alongside him.

In the further background were some prominent members of the party, including board members, who had concluded that Bridges had become a liability.

Their views were reinforced by problems the party was having attracting donations.

As if to vindicate that, by Friday evening the party had been receiving calls offering money and from people wanting to come back and get involved in the campaign.

This was a coup in part engineered by and certainly more widely approved of, by the party establishment.

There were two reasons for that; Bridges’ style and more fundamentally, the direction in which he was moving the party.

He had repeatedly annoyed the party hierarchy with his (and also his close associates) habit of getting into unnecessary scraps.

They argued that his handling of the Covid-19 response showed he was often tone deaf in his speeches and remarks.

The description of Maureen Pugh as “fucking useless” on the phone call that Jami Lee Ross recorded was typical of the Bridges style. Its release also turned Pugh into an ardent Judith Collins supporter.

At its heart, the Muller team was an echo of the Bolger/Key/English governments with deep roots in the party and by instinct centrists rather than ideologues.

Bridges has deep roots in the party too, but he is from the right and seemed to be moving closer to a small right-wing faction within the Caucus.

For those who could read between the lines, this was signalled in Amy Adams’ speech during the abortion law reform debate  when she said: “I think this House is in grave danger of becoming far more socially conservative, than New Zealand. And we do a disservice to New Zealand when we get out of step with the views of New Zealand.”

The political journalist, Colin James, wrote in his recent history of the party, “National at 80” that while National positioned itself unmistakably right of centre; “wherever the centre happened to be at any one time. It was in its strong  periods not far from the centre  (and even at times was  occasionally lambasted by supporters being too leftish)“

And though leaders like Jenny Shipley and Don Brash moved the party to the right for brief periods, they were inevitably dumped and replaced by centrists like Bill English and John Key.

Todd Muller’s election as National Party leader would seem to signal the end of the party’s bid to outflank New Zealand First.

Simon Bridges might reflect that it almost worked.

The idea was to win over enough votes from NZ First to push their vote under five per cent and therefore out of Parliament, while at the same time National moved its vote up into the high 40s and with a little bit of help from ACT, it would be able to form a Government.

The policy responded to an emotional need among many party members who believed Peters had betrayed them by forming a government with Labour when they had secured the largest share of the vote.

But it led Simon Bridges down some dark alleyways; none more so than the cynical decision in late 2018 to join fringe right groups and  oppose the UN Compact on Migration.

Again, it almost worked. Faced with National’s pressure, Winston Peters as Foreign Minister prevaricated and would not commit New Zealand to sign up. He papered over this with a call for a legal opinion about the compact. But he had to agree; the Labour part of the Government was never going to join a far-right movement on anything.

Their wisdom — and National’s cynicism by running a petition to demand withdrawal on its website  — were exposed with the mosque shootings when the gunman was found to have his opposition to the compact engraved on his weapon.

And that led to a key misstep by Bridges.

A National Party staff member, Brian Anderton,  who had been closely involved in the development of the party’s environmental and agriculture policies pulled the petition down from the website later in the day after the shootings.

Bridges held a press conference and dismissed the staffer as “junior” and “emotional” The party’s rural MPs and the broader agriculture community were staggered that Bridges could say something like this about someone who was held in high respect by the party base.

One MP described the decision as “appalling” in a text to POLITIK.

Bridges, it seemed, had nailed his political colours to the right of his party. And though talk of a challenge to him, most probably from Judith Collins, began to seep out of National’s Caucus the party organisation pulled things together and eventually in early February Bridges confirmed that National would not form a government with NZ First.

And then he went on the rampage with a hardline law and order anti-gang policy designed to make inroads into the NZ First vote.

Again, it almost worked.  In the February One News Colmar Brunton poll, New Zealand First was under five per cent and therefore out of Parliament, and National and ACT were on 48 per cent versus Labour and the Greens on 46.

In the last week of February, Bridges packed out a public meeting in Tauranga with his anti-gang message.

POLITIK Simon Bridges at his Tauranga gang meeting with National MPs Todd Muller and Mark Mitchell

And then on February 29, he went to Nelson for the Blue Greens annual Forum.

This was Muller’s home turf; one of the key gathering points for party centrists. Bridges made a keynote speech and then left.

Muller stayed and over drinks on Saturday night repeatedly told inquirers that he had no intention of challenging Bridges for the leadership; that he thought National would form the next Government, and he would be happy to be the Minister of Agriculture.

And then came Covid-19.

First there was the economic package on March 19 and Bridges’ widely panned negative response. The Adams speech about conservatives followed the next day, and next there were reports of an email from an electorate chair criticising Bridges’ speech circulating among the senior levels of the party demanding a discussion about his leadership.

POLITIK spoke to the author of the email (and undertook to keep his name anonymous), and he stressed that the issue needed to be resolved by the Caucus; that the party was limited in what it could do.

But what he didn’t say was that what they could do was apply pressure to the MPs.

By the end of March, there were reports of a leaked UMR poll showing National support plunging to the high 30s. That poll was sent to UMR’s commercial clients, and it is probable that one of them leaked it.

The word then quietly came out of some senior offices in the party that they would look favourably at a leadership bid.

It had an immediate effect.

In early April an Excel spreadsheet emerged showing which National MPs would lose their seats if the poll were to be reflected on election-day.

There was the pressure the email had talked about.

And that pressure began to show.

Caucus members began to tell journalists that there would be a leadership bid if the next public poll matched the kind of numbers in the now multiple leaked polls.

By last week there was sufficient momentum behind a challenge to Bridges for Judith Collins to go and tell him the challenge was likely. 

On Monday the Newshub poll simply confirmed the leaked polls. There was the trigger.

Whatever had transpired at her meeting, by Wednesday Collins was able to publicly announce she would not be a contender and privately told at least one party official that she would back Muller.

That released  some of her supporters David Bennett, Matt King and Maureen Pugh to make their own decisions.

All of them, for one reason or another, were opposed to Bridges. 

Then on Thursday came confirmation that all of the Christchurch MPs would now be supporting Muller.

David Carter, Nicky Wagener and Matt Doocey would be joining confirmed  Muller supporters Amy Adams and Gerry Brownlee to vote against him.

By Thursday evening Bridges’ numbers man, Todd McClay, knew his leader was unlikely to win.

So the Caucus vote was a foregone conclusion, and it would seem by a reasonable margin though even after Bridges had been defeated his deputy stood, Paul Bennett,  stood for the deputy leadership.

She lost, and her political career now would now seem to be over. 

Other close Bridges supporters will suffer varying fates; Paul Goldsmith has already retained Finance; Todd McClay is likely to stay, but Michael Woodhouse is obviously going to be replaced in Health by Shane Reti, and the fates of Louise Upston and Mark Mitchell are open to speculation.

POLITIK Todd Muller, Gerry Brownlee and Nikki Kaye at the press conference on Friday

Other moves are in the wings. The former party research head and Saunders Unsworth lobbyists, Megan Campbell, seems set to be Chief of Staff. .

Muller has not ruled out revisiting the NZ First policy though that will require approval from the caucus and the board but the way support is currently configured it would seem unlikely that National could gain power without them.

National has not seen a leadership contest with the ideological overtones that this one had since Jenny Shipley rolled Jim Bolger in 1997 or possibly even since the failed “Colonels’ Coup” by the free market faction against Sir Robert Muldoon in 1980.

Todd Muller’s victory has not just given National a better shot at the election but has repositioned them on the electoral landscape.

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