As National’s caucus begins a two-day meeting in Tauranga today, POLITIK has learned of two more MPs believed to be considering standing for the leadership when it becomes vacant.
Both Northcote MP Jonathan Coleman and Rodney MP Mark Mitchell are said to be thinking about a run.
What this underlines is that there is no consensus within the caucus as to who might be the next leader and that will disappoint Tauranga MP Simon Bridges who has appeared up till now to be the front-runner.
But there is criticism from within the caucus of Bridges’ gung-ho full-on opposition tactics last year when Parliament resumed after the election.
Other critics of his worry that he may polarise the electorate too much.
Bridges is more conservative than either John Key or even Bill English and while Mitchell is also a conservative he has earned a reputation as someone who can cross divisions both within his caucus and across the House.
Mitchell also has good relationships with some NZ First MPs which could prove to be important if NZ First ever falls out with Labour.
Coleman ran for the leadership in 2016 when John Key stepped down, and he called for a thorough rejuvenation of the front bench.
That didn’t happen, a factor that some in the Caucus believe cost the party support at the election.
But there are also suggestions that the possibility of a leadership election may spark a debate about the future direction of the party.
Nikki Kaye has already made the point in POLITIK that the party should take a more serious look at its environmental policies.
There are other questions.
Is there any future in continually promising tax cuts or should the caucus realise the last Government was seen by many voters as being too austere so is it time to spend a bit more?
MPs are also starting to ask each other whether National can make it back to Government without a support partner.
Some see the sponsorship of a conservative party as the key to this. Bridges may be one of those.
Others wonder whether it might be possible to get alongside NZ First as disillusionment sets in among its MPs as they become frustrated by the limits of coalition Government.
While this is going on in the caucus, POLITIK is hearing suggestions there may also be some upheaval within the party organisation though it would seem party president, Peter Goodfellow is not under any threat.
It is early days yet, and there may be some more clarity after the two-day retreat.
There remains the question of Judith Collins who has put in an impressive performance since the party lost Government.
Meanwhile English has not yet given any indication that he will step down though few National MPs believe he really wants to lead the party into the 2020 election.
He issued a statement yesterday looking forward to the Tauranga meeting, but the content of the statement looked back.
“”The focus of the National Party caucus will be on building on the policies which received such significant support at the election, and on coming up with new ones which will help our businesses and economy to grow, better protect our environment, keep New Zealanders safe and help them to make their mark on the world
And there was his often-repeated reference to the size of National’s caucus.
“”National is Parliament’s largest party and its most popular, with the backing of many New Zealanders.
“We have the people and the plans to continue to build a brighter future, and we will continue to focus on doing so and earning the right to govern again in 2020.”
The overwhelming impression is that of a party still struggling to come to terms with its defeat and and a long way off coming to any sort of consensus on its future.