Prime Minister John Key’s resignation has caught his Caucus unprepared.
They have no agreed replacement.
At a telephone conference call with the caucus yesterday, one participant said the MPs greeted his news with a stunned silence.
“About the best that could be managed was a few platitudes,” he said.
But by last night MPs phones were ringing with Ministers making soundings as to whether they should stand for the leadership.
What was clear was that the caucus was unlikely to agree to an instant “coronation’ of Bill English who Key has nominated as his replacement.
And English was being very careful what he said.
He would talk to his Caucus colleagues and his family before making any decision, he said.
But Caucus members were already informally debating the leadership last night and that debate seems pitched between stability and continuity on the one hand against generational renewal on the other.
English represents stability while Paula Bennett appears to be the front-runner for those who want generational renewal.
But Judith Collins and Jonathan Coleman have both also been phoning MPs and taking soundings.
There are questions about whether Amy Adams and Simon Bridges might also join the fray.
But at present, the debate revolves around English.
He starts with a powerful endorsement and rejecting him would mean rejecting John Key.
At a press conference yesterday he appeared to say that he believed that there should not be a formal vote within the Caucus on the leadership; that should be sorted out informally beforehand.
“This is a Caucus who have seen the political success of unity and cohesion,” he said.
“John Key has put a premium on that, and I think it is now part of our culture.
“I would expect that the issue of leadership will be dealt with internally because we can see that stability is important.”
Continuing that theme he talked about the need for continuity with stability saying that Government needed to “get on with the business of Government.”
And he said he thought the public did not want to see the kind of public brawling that had taken place during Opposition leadership changes.
“The country benefits from stable, clear direction and Government and the Caucus understands that,” he said.
That appears to be pretty much his pitch; that he offers stability and continuity.
But he may find his Caucus colleagues, particularly the younger and newer ones want more.
One MP said the past 48 hours had given the Labour party a huge boost; first with the Mt Roskill by-election win then Key’s resignation.
That, therefore, placed a premium on the next leader being able to win the 2017 election.
Few would argue that Bennett would be more likely to be a better campaigner than English.
Not only do the backbench want a leader who can win elections they also want one who will give them a chance in the Ministry.
Their code for that is “generational renewal” and Bennett who is 47, eight years younger than English, represents that mood.
It’s not just that English is 55, the same age as Key, but that he has been in Parliament since 1990 and that he has already held the leadership and lost an election which some backbenchers count against him.
To win over those who advocate generational renewal might also mean promising to persuade some long-serving Ministers to retire and their replacement by newer MPs.
One MP told POLITIK that if English wanted to win he would have to show that he had the most public support which would mean a poll.
UMR did a poll on National’s leadership between September 27 and October 14 and, of a sample of 1000 with a 2.8% margin of error found:
- English had 21% support.
- Steven Joyce 16%
- Paula Bennett 11%
- Judith Collins 6%
But 45% were unsure which leaves many questions unanswered.
It’s early days yet; the MPs will be back in the capital today, and as one said, there will be a lot of talking.
In the meantime, history suggests that whoever wins the leadership is in for a huge challenge to win the next election.
Over the past 59 years, previous Prime Ministers who have taken over mid-term have all lost their first general election as leader; Keith Holyoake (1957), Jack Marshall (1972), Bill Rowling (1975), Mike Moore (1990) and Jenny Shipley (1999).
What Key did yesterday was put the next election in play.