Hopes that National may have been able to settle its leadership contest without a potentially divisive caucus vote seem to be fading.
The contest now looks likely to head to the Caucus room on Tuesday for resolution.
With five candidates splitting the field it is all but impossible to determine who might be ahead at this stage.
Earlier suggestions from some of the party’s senior MPs that the matter would be best sorted out behind closed doors now looks unlikely to happen because no one has a clear majority to go into any negotiations with.
However one of the contenders, Simon Bridges, has confirmed that informal talks are going on.
A poll yesterday showing public support for Steven Joyce and Judith Collins has further complicated matters.
But it is hard though to get away from the idea that the last two candidates standing will be Amy Adams and Simon Bridges.
Unsurprisingly Steven Joyce contests that.
The Spinoff UMR poll yesterday showed he had the second highest public support, one point behind Judith Collins, and his net favourability was the highest of Bridges, Adams, Collins and himself.
(Mark Mitchell had not declared when the poll was taken.)
Joyce says this “confirms what most colleagues would know which is that I have a strong public profile.”
“I’m confident that my support is strong and growing,” he told POLITIK.
He believes there will be no early deal as there was in 2006 when Gerry Brownlee stepped aside on the weekend before the vote for Bill English to become deputy thus avoiding a caucus vote.
Joyce is known to have one former Cabinet Minister, Nathan Guy, supporting him and there is speculation that Bill English might also be behind him.
That seemed to be confirmed in an interview English had with Jamie MacKay on “The Country” radio show yesterday afternoon in which English described Joyce as a very important part of the Key-English Government.
“It was talked about as the Key-English team, but Steven was pretty vital to it,” he said.
He said the Caucus had to start again.
“And they want to keep the positive culture we’ve built up in National over the last 10 to 11 years, and they want leadership that is going to continue that.”
But Joyce’s rivals doubt that he has yet got significant support within the caucus.
They also doubt that Collins has been able to get any traction. Her popularity is outside the caucus, particularly among the party.
That was demonstrated in the Spinoff poll which she topped but which also showed that she polarises opinion and that she has a high unfavourable rating.
Nevertheless last night she was confident she had had made progress since the poll became public.
“I’ve already seen an improvement,” she told POLITIK.
“I don’t know whether it was the poll, but I think it does help.”
Just who is supporting her is something of a mystery; her opponents are tending to discount her chances with suggestions she could be the first to drop out in the balloting and that her support might go to her fellow conservative Simon Bridges.
The other mystery is Mark Mitchell.
His supporters will be his close friend Alfred Ngaro, and it is said he has some support from the new MPs.
Northland’s Matt King, a fellow former police officer, is named as one.
But Mitchell’s campaign has been heavier on spin than any of the others, possibly reflecting his close association with both Paula Bennett and Murray McCully, and there is doubt that he has as much support as he claims.
It is possible that his votes could end up with Amy Adams.
Adams’ supporters have been the most visible with four of them standing behind her when she announced her bid.
It is thought she is getting strong support from women within the caucus.
“Where I am sitting right now my view is that it is going to go through to Tuesday and we will play it from there,” she told POLITIK.
“I feel that I am in a strong position.
“What we are really talking about are the things that we need to do to get the party into the best position to win Government in 2020.
“I am outlining what I think is important and they (the Caucus) are telling me what they think is important.
“It is as useful a conversation for me to hear from them as it is for them to hear from me.”
Few doubt that Adams will be in the final runoff against Simon Bridges, and there is a consensus that he may be in the lead at present but that he may not yet have the 29 votes he will need to win.
Bridges looked like an Opposition Leader when as Shadow Leader of the House he clashed with Labour last year over the first few days the new Government came back to Parliament after the election.
Some in the caucus thought at the time he was going too far but now that Labour is ahead in the polls that view may be changing.
“I don’t want to be cocky about it, it is still a contest,” he told POLITIK last night.
“There is an unpredictability about it when you have got five candidates.
“There is always informal talks about the possibility of a clear conclusion and accommodations arising before the vote, but I certainly am keen for a vote so that there is a very clear sense of direction that comes formally from the National MPs.”