National’s 14 hours of hell ended last night with their former leader, Todd Muller, recovering from a personal crisis in Te Puna and Judith Collins elected to replace him.
Finally, after two previous attempts at the leadership which had ended with her getting only a handful of caucus votes, she had made it to the job she has obviously lusted after since she first entered Parliament 18 years ago.b
In a show of unity, the entire caucus stood around her as she held her first press conference at Parliament last night as the party’s fourth leader in four years.
And her responses in the conference demonstrated why she won the job.
“I can’t wait to take the fight to the government,” she said.
“Our goal is to put in place a far better government focused on the people of this country and what they are going to need, particularly from an economic point of view.”
National has seemed to drift since Muller’s election as leader on May 22.
A Roy Morgan poll published last night showed that in June, National had picked up only 0.5 per cent on its May rating and was at 27 per cent.
Labour could comfortably govern alone on 54.5 per cent; the Greens would be back on nine per cent and ACT on five per cent. NZ First continued to slump; now down to 1.5 per cent and out of Parliament.
National’s poll would leave it with 34 of its current 55 seats, and that would mean aside from retirements, 14 sitting MPs would lose their seats.
So Collins’ single-minded focus on the election will be welcomed by many MPs.
Certainly the party outside Parliament wanted exactly the result they got; two experienced MPs respected by party members in the leadership.
Muller began his leadership with a similar wave of support but his indecisiveness and apparent subservience to his deputy, Nikki Kaye, quickly eroded his authority.
It was a measure of her own estimate of her lack of support within the caucus that she did not even stand for deputy leader last night.
By Saturday as suggestions that some of his key staff were considering resignation began to circulate he had gone home and shut himself off from the world.
He emerged briefly on Sunday to talk to some of the staff and to hear their complaints.
He appeared at the party’s Monday morning phone strategy meeting only to shut himself off again.
And then early yesterday morning he announced that he was resigning.
“The role has taken a heavy toll on me personally, and on my family, and this has become untenable from a health perspective.,” his resignation statement said.
Leading members of the party made a quick damage assessment and concluded that the situation was dire and that only an experienced MP could lead the party to a half-way respectable election showing.
That left a choice of only two; Simon Bridges or Judith Collins.
Bridges eventually, possibly reluctantly, decided not to stand and senior MPs then began to talk about their hope that Collins could become leader without a vote.
That wasn’t going to happen after Mark Mitchell (for the third time) decided to stand for election.
The same reasoning that saw Collins the preferred candidate for leader applied to Gerry Brownlee’s candidacy for deputy leader.
Brownlee is already the campaign chair and shadow leader of the House, arguably the two most important jobs apart from leader in the run-up to the election.
He previously served as deputy to Don Brash between 20013 and 2006 but gave the job up when John Key became leader to make way for Bill English.
He too faced a competitor, Paul Goldsmith, the party’s finance spokesperson.
That led to immediate speculation as to whether he would keep his role; Collins has not been a big fan and was considered to be close to backbench Hunua MP, Andrew Bayley, who issued an alternative economic policy during the lockdown.
Asked who would be finance spokesperson, she said: “I haven’t discussed this with Gerry, but I am pretty certain that Paul Goldsmith will be in that role.”
Overall she said there would be a few changes in the party’s Parliamentary lineup to accommodate the fact that she and Gerry were now the leadership team “, but I don’t think you will see wholesale changes.”
“We are not that many weeks out from an election, and it’s really important that our team who have worked so hard in their portfolios that they don’t be disrupted any more than necessary.”
Collins made frequent references to the proximity of the election.
“It is important that we send some very strong messages out to our base voters, who have obviously been a bit discombobulated in the last day or so and they need to know that we are absolutely back on track and we will be taking the fight to the Government.
“I can’t wait to do that.”
That is Collins’ strength; her upfront full-on aggression though she might have stretched things a bit when asked to describe the difference between herself and Jacinda Ardern.
“Experience, toughness, the ability to make decisions,” she replied.
“Jacinda Ardern is not someone we should ever underestimate.
“She is an adversary that I would absolutely respect, but I tell you what, our team is better than their team and we are going to take it back.”
There have been few days in recent New Zealand political history like yesterday.
Muller had managed only 53 days in office.
Even Labour’s two quickfire leaders, David Shearer and David Cunliffe, did more than a year on office; so did Sir Geoffrey Palmer and National’s Jim McLay back in the 80s.
Like Mike Moore in 1990, on the eve of an election Collins has taken over a divided party which has presented its instability to the full gaze of the electorate.
The polling gap between Labour and National was similar in 1990 to what it is now, around 30 per cent, but Moore reduced it to 12 per cent on election night.
So a late leadership change can make a difference. But Moore still came up short on election night.
The National Party organisation know they are up against it. Their priority now is to save as many seats as they can.
If Collins can do that, even though she might not form the next Government, she will have won in the eyes of many National supporters.