Hooton on National’s old guard

Matthew Hooton writes:

At first blush, Sunday?s 1News-Colmar Brunton poll was good news for National.

According to the poll, the government has received no post-election bounce. Jacinda Ardern, while polling creditably at 37% as preferred prime minister, is below where John Key and Helen Clark were at the same times of their prime ministerships. Meanwhile, National is up to 46% and Bill English is polling higher as preferred prime minister than any previous opposition leader straight after a change of government.

But National knows very well it is not on 46%. Its own polling, and Labour?s, has it much lower and below Labour-Green.

What?s more, the 1News poll follows the coalition?s wobbly start, caused mainly by its formation being so unlikely just six months ago. The Beehive is still not fully staffed. Until yesterday, its programme was poorly defined. For those who care, its performance in parliament is abysmal.

Looking ahead, though, the competent parts of the bureaucracy ? the Cabinet Office, the Treasury and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade ? have for decades made the most shambolic governments look well organised and coherent, and yesterday?s exercise indicates they will eventually succeed with this lot.

If National thinks it can cruise to a 46% result in 2020 it is dreaming ? and, after recent events, it should know better than anyone that 46% wouldn?t be enough to defeat Labour, the Greens and NZ First anyway.

I’m pretty sure that The 1News/Colmar Brunton poll accurately reflected National’s internal poll, so I disagree with Hooton on that, but I do agree that National are dreaming if they think the status quo is going to win them the next election.

Much of what is needed to limit Ms Ardern to one term is outside National?s control. Winston Peters could fall out with Labour if his NZ First brand isn?t given sufficient space within the coalition. More likely, the conservative Christian movement may be reinvigorated by the forthcoming euthanasia and abortion debates creating a new party to attract right-leaning voters who would otherwise stay at home.

I don’t think a Christian movement is at all possible after being wrecked by Graham Capill and then by Colin Craig.

However, as Mr English observed this week, National risks a backlash if it overtly promotes such developments. What National can determine all on its own is the image and policy programme it presents to the electorate in two and a half years.

There are New Zealand precedents for defeated prime ministers making comebacks. In the 19th century, the prime ministership switched fairly regularly between William Fox, Edward Stafford, Harry Atkinson and Julius Vogel. Joseph Ward ruled for nearly six years in the 1910s and then briefly in the 1920s. More recently, Keith Holyoake had a few months as prime minister in 1957 before his long reign through the 1960s.

Having served as a senior minister and finance minister in the Bolger-Shipley government, as deputy prime minister and finance minister for John Key and then as prime minister in his own right, it would be an extraordinary achievement for Mr English to have a third suck of the sav by returning to any senior ministerial role in 2020.

It is also extremely unlikely. Unless National remains confident the current government will collapse and remorseful voters will restore the English regime, its return to power depends on it achieving generational change faster than Labour managed between 2008-2017. Old faces don?t win 21st century elections.

And Bill English is no Keith Holyoake.

That means not just Mr English but also the main faces from the Key government need to spend the summer deciding when they will drink the hemlock themselves rather than waiting for the caucus to drag them to the firing squad later in the year.Neither New Zealand voters nor Mr Peters are going to elect a government if it includes Paula Bennett, Steven Joyce, Gerry Brownlee or Nick Smith, all of whom have done their dash.

Or Bill English for that matter. I like Gerry, sure I’ve had my run-ins with him, but I think he improved with age. Paula Bennett is an embarrassment, Nick Smith is…well…Nick Smith. Steve Joyce could continue on, but he was the strategist for the losing election, and was involved in the plot against Winston, despite his denials.

The next National government will necessarily be very different from the one defeated this year. It might be led by Simon Bridges, Amy Adams or Judith Collins, although their senior roles in the Key government mean they all risk being for National what Phil Goff was for Labour in 2008-11. It might be better to look to the likes of Nikki Kaye, Mark Mitchell or Todd Muller. An alternative might pop up in a byelection in Upper Harbour, Ilam, Nelson. North Shore, Northcote or Otaki.

Amy Adams has an upside down smile and is very lax with her personal indiscretions. Simon Bridges is a lightweight and needs to concentrate and focus instead of grandstanding. Nikki Kaye has a Boag Albatross around her neck and Todd Muller was part of the leaks in coalition negotiations along with Chris Bishop. Mark Mitchell could make a name for himself, and has the business and negotiation skills to get difficult negotiations across the line. Any one who can negotiate with Muqtada al Sadr and Viktor Bout has the skills to deal with Winston Peters.

Other fresh faces ready for the front bench are Paul Goldsmith, who surely must be given a proper crack at Epsom in 2020; Chris Bishop, who took Hutt South off Labour; and Nicola Willis, who will come into parliament when the first two list MPs retire. Look also to the likes of Barbara Kuriger, Sarah Dowie and Matt Doocey being given more senior roles after any leadership change.

Nicola Willis is a Key flunky, and not that good. Chris Bishop is the biggest leaker in National’s caucus, both before and after the election. He’s worked so closely with Labour while they were in opposition to leak details hostile to National ministers he’s almost considered to be an extra Labour party MP. His patsy questions to Stu Nash the other day just cemented those thoughts amongst caucus.

It took Labour nearly nine years to make the necessary generational change to become credible again ? and it is instructive how quickly the game changed when it did. Unless the National caucus wants to remain in the thrall of the has-beens who lead them now, it best move quicker than its old foes did.

National is usually better at cutting throats than Labour. Jacinda Ardern is no pragmatist like Helen Clark, and so a radical change in National and a faltering government could see National returned in three years time, but only if they act.