Todd Muller appeared last night to have the numbers to become the new leader of the National Party when National’s caucus meets at mid-day..
Bridges camp was aware last night that defeat was likely today.
They must have been startled yesterday by reports of significant defections of caucus heavyweights from Leader Simon Bridges’ support. The confirmation on One News Colmar Brunton poll of National’s low rating appears to have simply added to the pressure for change.
It is even possible that Bridges might – for the sake of party unity — decide to resign before the caucus meeting.
But by this afternoon it will be party unity that will be the preoccupation of both the caucus and party leadership.
By POLITIK’S count Muller yesterday had at least 28 votes, enough to prevent anybody else from winning. A convincing victory will depend on what happens to the 15 or so votes that were going to Judith Collins and Mark Mitchell.
Muller’s base is built on the strong showing that Amy Adams made in the 2018 leadership ballot that got Bridges elected.
Adams announced her candidacy flanked by Nikki Kaye, Chris Bishop, Tim McIndoe and Maggy Barry.
Kaye and Bishop, along with Wellington List MP, Nicola Willis, appear to be the organising force behind the Muller candidacy.
He has also turned for advice to old friends like right-wing media commentator, Matthew Hooton.
Bridges campaign has been much less visible.
But with Paula Bennett and Todd McClay at his side, he has had two of the caucus’s most experienced political operators working the phones.
There are many questions that the events of this week have thrown up; none more so than what the future will be for Judith Collins.
There are those who believe that she precipitated the most recent media speculation about his leadership through her association with the blogger, David Cormack.
Hooton suggested this in his column in “The NZ Herald” on April 24.
“This week’s leadership speculation was sparked by the musings of blogger Cameron Slater and former Green Party director of communications and policy David Cormack. Both are associated with Papakura MP Judith Collins,” he said.
There was support for Bridges last night; over 600 comments on the same Facebook page that he got attacked on over his lockdown speech in Parliament which in many ways led to the current leadership contest.
He posted a picture of him and his daughter Jemina in Parliament’s Copperfield’s café.
The messages were generally supportive and carried a suggestion that their authors would not take his defeat kindly.
Cameron Beaumont posted: “Ignore the haters Simon, they forget you’re a real person too. I hope the poll tonight shows improvement of some sort and I wish you luck for tomorrow.”
On the other hand, there were a handful of critics. David Moore posted: “Resign please Simon, you are bringing down the national party big time. How can you not see it when everyone else can.”
Much of this leadership has been like that; MPs expressing strong views about Bridges’ personality. They have been prompted to do so by the plunge in the polls.
But there are some in the caucus who see wider forces at play.
The presence of Nikki Kaye on Muller’s ticket and the background presence of Amy Adams has convinced the conservatives within the caucus that the party is about to undergo a liberal takeover.
Bridges himself regards Kaye as one of the most liberal members of the caucus.
At the same time he is held in high regard by a small group of conservative Christians within the caucus; Simon O’Connor (his brother in law); Chris Penk, Simeon Brown and Agnes Loheni.
They have been able to look forward to losing some liberals (possibly Nicola Willis and Chris Bishop) at the election but at gaining two more conservative Christians in Tim Costley (Otaki) and Christopher Luxon (Botany).
Adams identified the conservatives in her speech during the third reading of the law reform legislation.
“I think this House is in grave danger of becoming far more socially conservative, than New Zealand,” she said.
“And we do a disservice to New Zealand when we get out of step with the views of New Zealand.”
Those, like Adams, who worry about the conservatives fear that they may become like the US populist conservatives who took over the Republican Party and installed Donald Trump.
But the most immediate challenge to face the party and whoever ends up as its leader will be to unify it. A challenge to a sitting leader is always more bruising than a leadership contest after a sitting leader has stood down.
Bridges’ decision to call an early caucus meeting will help that process. It has meant caucus members have had little opportunity to go public with their views on either him or Muller.
There will be other difficult decisions to make by whoever wins. What to do with whoever loses; whether to keep Judith Collins inside the tent or not; who on the front bench to keep and who from the rest of the caucus to promote.
If Muller wins, would he be comfortable continuing with Paula Bennett as campaign chair? Possibly not.
But the biggest challenge will be to convince the public that National is united enough to be considered an alternative government.
That is why the worst outcome today would be a narrow victory for one of the contenders.