National’s leadership contest went behind closed doors yesterday as the contenders met with backbenchers trying to win their votes.
Last night was the last chance for face to face contact for the Ministers who are standing for the leadership with the MPs who will return to their homes tonight and be back in Wellington on Monday for the vote.
Though there are some claims that Finance Minister Bill English has more than the 30 votes needed to win, MPs last night told POLITIK that they believed that neither English nor Jonathan Coleman has yet got enough votes to claim victory.
Judith Collins is thought to have only a handful of votes and not likely to achieve the 30 votes needed to win.
However there seems to be a growing acceptance that English is likely to get there in the end.
But that could depend on how he responds to the concerns that have surfaced from within the caucus this week over the inner Cabinet and the way it works.
Meanwhile, the focus has now shifted to the deputy leadership.
Paula Bennett and Simon Bridges both announced they will stand and both endorsed Bill English.
Amy Adams is also thought to be another possible starter with an announcement at the Caucus meeting on Monday.
She appeared to confirm that by saying the sort of discussions taking place in public now were best had in the Caucus room.
My colleagues and the process deserve that,” she said.
“It’s going to be my approach to the contest.”
But the same issues that have been playing out over the leadership are playing out in discussion about the deputy leadership too. It has become clear that the backbench want two things:
- New blood in the Cabinet
- A change in style to make the Government caucus more inclusive.
Paula Bennett is a member of the Inner Cabinet which she acknowledged when she made her announcement.
That will make it harder for her to get votes from the back bench.
One MP told POLITIK that on Monday he would have thought the leadership would be quickly resolved with English as leader and Bennett as his deputy.
But he was surprised to discover over Monday night and Tuesday that Bennett’s star had faded with National’s back benchers.
Perhaps that is why she took so long to announce whether she would participate in the leadership contest at all.
Bridges, on the other hand, is one of National’s up and coming stars and is considered by many to be a future leader.
Aged only 40, the thinking was that he had the luxury of not standing because “his time would come”.
But he is standing, and though he is backing English, POLITIK understands that Collins says she could work with him and Coleman also would be likely to find him more compatible than Bennett.
But Coleman has also publicly endorsed Adams as a potential deputy.
Bridges, like Coleman, is standing on a “generational change” platform.
And this is where the sticking point with English is for the whole caucus.
They want to see a significant sign that he will act on their concerns.
One MP said evidence that English understood what they were saying would come if he agreed to move Nick Smith.
Smith is one of English’s closest personal friends and has been loyal to him throughout their political careers. Like English, he entered Parliament in 1990.
Other names mentioned as needing “moving” include Gerry Brownlee, Murray McCully, Anne Tolley and Steven Joyce.
But those advocating generational change say they are about more than renewing the Cabinet.
They talk about a growing distance between the inner Cabinet and the rest of the Caucus which they say has got worse this term.
Caucus feels that it has been marginalised with major decisions like whether to have tax cuts not debated within it.
This means that this leadership contest is morphing into a debate about policy; already Coleman and Collins have called for more infrastructure spending, and Coleman has argued for more health spending.
In essence, the “generational renewal” movement within National wants a re-invention of the Government.
They want new faces in Cabinet, and they want to see a more flexible approach to policy and a more inclusive approach to policy making.
It’s conceivable that this leadership debate could go into the Monday caucus with some MPs still unwilling to commit until they get a public commitment from the leadership candidates to make the changes they are looking for.
The Caucus is asking for nothing less than a complete reinvention of the Government. Until English agrees to at least discuss that he cannot claim victory.
That’s how much is at stake in this contest.