National will decide its leadership today, and even last night there were few willing to predict the winner from among the five candidates who will nominate themselves at the Caucus meeting.

There were claims from a number of candidates that the support had fragmented so much that it was now a three-way race.

Simon Bridges and Amy Adams are still believed to be the front-runners but last night there were varying claims that either Mark Mitchell or Steven Joyce could gain enough second preferences in the balloting to come up and match them or even possibly end up in the final vote with Bridges.

If either Joyce or Mitchell can pull that off it will underline how much this contest has been about the Key-English-Joyce legacy and how much of that should be maintained by the party has it moves forward to the 2020 election.

Three candidates; Simon Bridges, Amy Adams and Judith Collins have to a greater or lesser extent called for a “rejuvenation” of the party which is National Party code for change.

Bridges and Collins have also made it known they would want someone other than Steven Joyce to be Finance spokesperson.

Behind the scenes, some of the criticism of Joyce has been harsh.

But Joyce’s supporters (and they include some of the party organisation heavyweights)  would argue  the loss of Joyce as Finance spokesperson would not be of as much importance as the inevitable loss that would follow of him as the party strategist; the person who reshaped the party organisation in the early 2000s and then went on as Campain Manager to nearly win in 2005 and win by a landslide in 2008.

He was the architect of the victory that brought John Key and Bill English to power, and he has run every election campaign since.

Inside the caucus, he is infamous for his power points reporting on focus groups and his consequent centrist policy proposals.


That perhaps explains why English is widely now believed by the Caucus to be supporting him in his bid for the leadership.

In a way that underlines how much Joyce is seen as the keeper of the flame.

Even so, his decsiuion to enter the contest surprised some of his colleagues.

Some apparently tried to advise him against it.

As one put it yesterday to POLITIK, he had put himself in a situation where it would be all or bust.

His rivals in the contest would argue it is most likely to be bust with him dropping out on the second ballot.

But he was having none of that last night.

“I think it is a strong three-way race,” he told POLITIK.

“I’ve had a very good range of support expressed from all parts of the country, in particular, Auckland and the regions but also around Wellington and Christchurch as well.”

Joyce believes it will come down to himself, Adams and Bridges as the final three.

The Mitchell camp would contest that.

They believe that he will be ahead of  Joyce and inherit most of his support when he drops out after the second round..

They argue that could be enough to push Mitchell ahead of Adams and make the final runoff between Bridges and Mitchell.

But Adams last night said she was feeling good about where she was sitting.

However, when asked whether it would be a two-way or three-way race she said: “All candidates have got support and they can speak to where they are, but I’m in a strong position.”

Mitchell is the other “establishment” candidate in the race.

He is close to John Key and though he is personally a conservative, is promoting his leadership as a centrist one which would bring the different factions within the caucus back together.

His support base is said to be strongest among newer MPs who he has had the time to socialise with and help settle into Parliament.

But he has also made it clear he would keep Joyce on as Finance spokesperson.

Mitchell is enough of a political pragmatist to realise he is unlikely to win the contest.

However, his campaign has had little downside

And he has propelled himself into the top rank of the caucus and could well end up as Foreign Affairs spokesperson.

He will also be handily placed if the leader elected today falls over.

Judith Collins, meanwhile, remains an enigma, claiming support but still regarded by most of her colleagues as the candidate likely to drop out first.

But like Mitchell she too has made a strong claim to become one of the senior MPs within the caucus.

Unlike Mitchell, she has been one of Joyce’s strongest critics and reflects a view from the right of the party that his centrism has taken National too far to the left.

Bridges has not been as firm in his public comments on Joyce. However, he has made it clear he stands for change.

Depending on how strong a showing Joyce and Mitchell make today, will depend on how much space Bridges has to rejuvenate both the front bench and the policies of the party if he emerges as the Leader today.

The National Leader’s office is expecting a result around mid-day.