National’s three leadership candidates are opening up deep divisions within the caucus that have been papered over for the past decade by the extraordinary popularity of John Key.

All through yesterday at hastily convened informal press conferences or a seemingly endless stream of interviews, National’s three leadership contenders laid out their claims to replace  John Key.

Bill English’s pitch for continuity and stability is being challenged by  MPs outside the Government’s tight inner circle so that ultimately this contest looks like it will come down to the old guard versus the younger bloods in the caucus.

There also appears to be a division between the Auckland MPs and the rest of the caucus. Jonathan Coleman is exploiting that with a call for a hurry up on Auckland’s infrastructure.

So far only Nicky Kaye, of the Auckland MPs, has publicly endorsed English.

Meanwhile, Judith Collins appears to be going over the heads of the Caucus and appealing to the party rank and file with a specific pledge to review the deal with the Maori Party over the Resource Management Act. She also argues that she is well placed to do any post-election deal with NZ First.

Meanwhile three other potential candidates — Paula Bennett, Simon Bridges and Amy Adams — are sitting on the sidelines all potentially taking up a deputy leadership with one of the three declared candidates. It is still possible that Bennett could stand for the leadership herself.

National Party President Peter Goodfellow with Foreign Minister Murray McCully outside National's caucus

But English’s candidacy with backing from the Prime Minister and party president is setting the pace for the whole contest.

What is abundantly clear is that even if he won he would be expected by a sizeable segment of the caucus to sack most of the inner Cabinet – in particular, Gerry Brownlee, Murray McCully and even possibly Steven Joyce.


Other names being mentioned by the back bench as due for demotion include Nick Smith, Anne Tolley and Sam Lotu Iiga.

Jonathan Coleman has picked up on this mood and is pitching his candidacy as “generational change”.

At first, it seemed Paula Bennett would carry this flag, but she has now apparently thrown in her lot with English and some caucus sources say she would be his deputy if he wins.

Former Party President, Michelle Boag, says this is her pick for an outcome.

And that has to be the safest bet.

But after Coleman came out of National’s caucus and after phoning 35 MPs over night announced his candidacy, a surprising number of MPs and even one Minister appeared to be ready to back him.

His pitch is aimed squarely at those MPs who are outside the inner circle.

“The public want us to continue to come up with policies and approaches fronted by fresh faces that are relevant to them,” he told POLITIK.

He says it is time for new approaches regarding internal processes and new ideas.

“And new ideas come from new people.

“We’ve got a lot of potential we could be tapping in caucus, and we’ve got to do that.

“That doesn’t mean that everyone can be in Cabinet, but it does mean that we can really sit down and canvas ideas.”

He says the party needs a generational change that can take it through the next two elections.

“That’s the issue that caucus needs to consider; who can win in 2017 but take us beyond that.”

Coleman is the MP for Northcote; the electorate at the northern end of the Auckland Habour Bridge and he believes that the current timetable for the construction of a second harbour crossing currently not planned to even begin construction till 2038 needs to be brought forward.

Co-incidentally English’s fingerprints very much over the recent Auckland Transport Alignment Report which set the time frame for the the crossing.

“I would like to see a strong focus on infrastructure, and I would like to see the full range of options for funding being explored,” Coleman said.

The question most MPs were asking about Judith Collins’ candidacy was whether she had any support at all.

One MP described her as “deluded”.

But she may be playing a long game.

If National loses the next election – which is now a much more credible possibility than it was last Friday — then she might be in a pposition to say “I told you so” and few would doubt what an effective opposition leader she would be.

She is clearly pitching her campaign over the heads of the Caucus to the party at large.

She starts with a brutal (but possibly more realistic) assessment of the party’s chances at the next election which she says will make 2008 (when Key won power)  “look like a cakewalk”.

“I know it is going to be an incredibly hard fight and we are going to have to do deals that we haven’t done before post the election and we need to do some from a position of strength and we also need to be able to work in areas that we hadn’t felt comfortable working in before,” she told  POLITIK.

“I think that is going to take a really tough person who can make deals, think on their feet, do deals, make hard calls – who people know is utterly authentic and I think I am.”

Collins, who calls herself a “conviction politician” pitches to National’s heartland.

“I think we are in serious trouble if we do not connect with our base and with ordinary people who go to work every day, pay their taxes and want to know what we are spending the money on.”

While Coleman is not willing to commit to retaining English as Finance Minister, Collins is. Otherwise, she would go with Steven Joyce or Coleman himself.

Concerning the post-election talks, she says she gets along well with most of NZ First.

“You never know with Winston, though you have to say he is one of the outstanding politicians of our time.”

(That should be enough to get her in his door)

And she says she gets along fine with the Maori Party though that might not continue to be the case if they understand that she wants to see the proposed iwi participation provisions of the Resource Management Act dropped.

“Our voters are concerned that we actually deliver real substantial RMA reform.”

National has effectively kept the lid on this issue, but there were two attempts at party regional conferences this year to debate it which were shut down.

It’s hard to read the mood of the caucus because many say they are not sure who they will vote for. Thus support for the two main candidates – English and Coleman would seem to be soft.

If the vote had been held last night, English would probably have won.

But what does seem to be increasingly  emerging is a strong voice for radical rather than incremental change at the top.

One MP said if the Cabinet all just moved up one, that would not do.

But there are still five periods of sleep till the vote. That’s a lot of time for a lot of lobbying.