Bill English’s Cabinet reshuffle says a lot about him.
It is conservative, and it acknowledges loyalty – both to him and also, by him, to an old mate.
But it also signals that those who challenge him cannot expect rewards.
The old mate is fellow brat-packer, Nick Smith, who many in the Caucus and the party hierarchy wanted sacked.
Instead, English has kept him in his Environment and Housing portfolios and shuffled him down the Cabinet list.
Meanwhile the two Cabinet colleagues who challenged him for the leadership have both gone down the Cabinet list and one, Judith Collins, has lost her high-profile Police and Corrections Ministries in return for the heavyweight but lower profile Revenue and Energy portfolios. Presumably this will mean she has less oppurtunity to make tabloid headlines.
Paula Bennett, on the other hand, who seemingly endlessly expressed her admiration for English, has now added to her existing portfolios of Climate Change and State Services a powerful cluster of Ministries (including Tourism, Police and Women) ; enough to rival Steven Joyce as Minister of Everything and now clearly being prepared to take over from English should that ever suddenly be required.
Joyce himself is now Minister of Finance, Minister for Infrastructure and — surprisingly to some — still Campaign Chair.
Bennett has also been tasked with developing campaign policy with the backbench which means that she and Joyce will form the inner-inner Cabinet with English.
Gerry Brownlee retains everything he had except that he is no longer acting as Minister of Civil Defence but is now the full-time Minister.
He has taken that over from Nikki Kaye who is still recovering from her cancer treatment.
Importantly he remains as Leader of the House and Chair of the Procedures Committee which has enormous powers to dole out preferred speaking lots and Committee assignments to backbenchers.
Simon Bridges has got the Ministry of Economic Development and also Minister of Communications while he retains Transport but drops energy — more importantly, he has leapt up to Number Five in the Cabinet pecking order. He is surely now next in line after Bennett on the climb up the greasy pole to the party leadership.
Bridges played his bid for the deputy leadership adroitly. He had the backing of another Minister, Todd McClay, and he didn’t directly challenge English. He withdrew early which gave him the opportunity to get some assurances about his future.
One of the two unsuccessful challengers for the leadership, Judith Collins, has taken a tumble.
She has lost Police and Corrections and instead becomes Minister of Energy and Minister of Revenue. That’s a sideways move rather than a demotion, but she has moved down the Cabinet order from 14 to 16. When she left Cabinet in 2014 after allegations about her attempts to undermine the CEO of the Serious Fraud Office she was at five. She might have thought that her return to the front bench would have begun by now.
However Collins has few (if any) real supporters in Cabinet, the majority of whom regard her with suspicion because they believe she is too divisive.
Jonathan Coleman, on the other hand, who also challenged English has been the subject of much speculation that he might end up with Foreign Affairs. He hasn’t and instead retains Health and Sport and Recreation. He has also moved down one slot in the Cabinet pecking order.
He can’t complain, and he isn’t but sources say he is unlikely to make it as Foreign Affairs Minister when McCully retires in May next year.
Instead sources say Rodney MP Mark Mitchell has deliberately been given a light Ministerial load so he can prepare to take over the Foreign Ministry. Meanwhile, he is focusing on his new portfolios; Statistics and Land Information. Both have their challenges.
Statistics is central to the whole social investment programme while Land Information is involved in earthquake recovery work.
Mitchell spoke to English yesterday morning, and he’s now keen to get down to Wellington.
“I’m looking forward to getting the briefings that will bring me up to speed on what is going to be required,” he said.
Mitchell was asked by McCully to be Bennett’s numbers man for her bid for the deputy leadership — a fact which was referenced by National MP Jonathan Young, who might have expected promotion but didn’t get it, in a wry tweet: “Always knew you were the numbers man”.
He was replying to a tweet from Mitchell offering the statistics of his celebratory fish and chip order last night.
Mitchell along with list MP Alfred Ngaro are two of the “four amigos” who were the public face of the Caucus rebellion opposing a “coronation” of Bill English, calling for Cabinet renewal and a more inclusive relationship between the Cabinet and the Caucus.
But like Bridges they were careful to keep their protest positive and they didn’t directly challenge English.
Ngaro was “over the moon” about not only becoming a Minister but also going into the Cabinet proper; the first person of Cook Island descent ever to do so.
An energetic figure not only in Parliament but also within the National Party, Ngaro has been responsible for trying o get National’s message out to the largely Labour voting Pasifika community in Auckland.
Now he is Minister of Pacific Island Affairs.
.Though he will be focussing on communicating National’s vision and values to Pacific Island communities, he told POLITIK that what was important was what National could do for the whole of New Zealand.
“And it’s important to get that out there,” he said.
The other two new Ministers outside Cabinet (with Mitchell and Ngaro) are Jacqui Dean who impressed as chair of the Justice and Electoral Select Committee and who has been a lively MP for Waitaki. She is now Minister of Commerce and Consumer Affairs and Small Business.
David Bennett is Chair of the prestigious Finance and Expenditure Committee, where he has dealt with English, and though his chairmanship has been unexceptional, with his law and commerce degrees he might have been more qualified for the portfolios Dean has but instead has picked up Veterans Affairs and Food Safety.
The big mover yesterday – apart from Bennett and Bridges — is Michael Woodhouse, up from 17 to nine in the rankings and losing Revenue for ACC.
Amy Adams has moved from seven to six but more importantly, English says she now will be part of the inner Cabinet.
Apart from Ngaro, there are two other new Ministers; Paul Goldsmith, who picks up two of Steven Joyce’s old portfolios; Tertiary Education and Science and Innovation.
The other is Lousie Upston who is now the Minister of Corrections.
There are 21 positions in the Cabinet and four outside which makes it a big Ministry. But McCully and Education Hekia Parata, will go to the back benches in May next year but English says that will probably mean there will be only one further vacancy in the Cabinet.
So Nationals inner leadership team will now be Bennett, Joyce, Brownlee, Bridges, and Adams with Coleman on the periphery.
To use one of English’s favourite phrases – incremental change.