Former Prime Minister and National Leader Bill English last night offered a subtle hint as to what sort of leader the party should look for to replace him.
Of course English is far too experienced and wily a politician to name his replacement when he knows there is not yet a consensus within the caucus on who should be the next leader.
But talking to POLITIK he was emphatic National could not go into the 2020 election offering the fourth term of the Key/English Government.
That would seem to rule out key members of that Government like Paula Bennett and Steven Joyce.
Instead he seemed to be calling for a new generation of leadership.
Instead, he said, the party needed to refresh its relevance to the issues that would be live in 2020.
“There is going to be a big focus on climate change,” he said.
“You are going to see a different sort of economic argument because it is not about coming out of the GFC now, it is about taking the opportunities of a growing economy.
“That will be a National Party which I hope reflects the strength of the expectations of what is the largest support base but which is relevant to 2020. “
What that sounds like is a hope that the party addresses the big policy issues with a fresh approach and in an innovative way which will be seen as an endorsement by some of the younger members of the caucus who have been arguing for this since English took over the leadership in 2016.
However English has never really faced any opposition from within the national caucus.
He is held in enormously high regard as someone who has been prepared to put his party first and who had a compassionate approach to policy.
With John Key he made a break with the Ruth Richardson, Jenny Shipley, Don Brash hardline neo-liberalism which dominated the party’s economic thinking from 1990 till 2008.
“I’m not a believer in the hairy-chested version of politics that you lecture people and tell them that if it hurts it’s got to be good for them and even if you don’t like it, it is probably the right thing.
“And if you don’t do the right things the market will crash.
“And National was a bit like that, and that has changed.”
But how the party might change now he is going, was up in the air yesterday.
Senior members of the party all said they couldn’t pick who the next leader would be.
And the caucus produced a co-ordinated wall of silence about the leadership.
“No, today is about Bill,” sounded from all of them almost like a mantra.
This is in stark contrast to the leadership change in 2016 when John Key stood down and endorsed Bill English as his successor.
And what it says is that there is no logical successor.
“Kiwiblog” author, David Farrar, who has impeccable National caucus connections, suggested there could be up to seven contenders.
They could be: Simon Bridges, Amy Adams, Steven Joyce, Jonathan Coleman, Judith Collins, Mark Mitchell and possibly Nikki Kaye, Paula Bennett or Todd Muller.
By many accounts Bridges and Adams are the front-runners. Neither would say anything yesterday.
But if there was an impasse between the two could someone else come through the middle?
That is what Mark Mitchell and Judith Collins might hope.
One of the key questions that will be asked will be whether whoever wins the leadership now will be the next Prime Minister.
History suggests not.
The 1984 – 90 National Opposition went through three leaders — Sir Robert Muldoon, Jim McLay and Jim Bolger — before it won Government.
The 1999 – 2008 National Opposition went through four leaders — Jenny Shipley, Bill English, Don Brash and John Key before it won.
Those who think this might apply might feel that some of the younger candidates should keep their powder dry and stay out of this round.
There are also positions to protect.
The pressure that surfaced in 2016 from younger caucus members for a rejuvenation of the front bench has not gone away.
But for younger MPs — like Michael Woodhouse, Nikki Kaye, Todd Muller and Scott Simpson — to be promoted, there would have to be movement off the front bench.
That raises questions about the future of list MPs like David Carter or Chris Finlayson.
The timing of English’s announcement was odd.
The party membership might have preferred that he had waited until the regional party conferences had finished in the middle of the year.
He himself is clearly disappointed that he is not Prime Minister. He feels that he had a plan and that the present Government does not.
“It’s an accidental collection of policies that have some overlap – trees, trains — and someone has got to make sense out of all that.
“So at the moment the Prime Minister’s public presentation is the face of it.
“And that will work for a while, but you still have to deliver.”
But if that sounds negative, he has no regrets about the election that he won and then lost.
“You get this fantastic opportunity, and I’m satisfied that every day I had it, I used it.
“But it can go, either through your own mistakes or misjudgements so in that sense, it is frustrating that there are opportunities that New Zealand could take which it could lose just because of the muddling around but I can’t do anything about that.
“So I am going to go off and do something else.”