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Does it even matter who wins National’s leadership contest?

Judith Collins. Photo/Getty Images

Unless, of course, it's Judith Collins.

Every now and then, our major political parties wave goodbye to their old leader and go through the complicated courtship ritual involved in finding a new one. Well, New Zealand First is a bit of an exception. Winston Peters does it in reverse. As leader, he periodically gets rid of his MPs and finds a new bunch to follow him blindly. This ability of his led to an old joke.

Winston walks into restaurant with his caucus to have a meal.

“I’ll have roast beef,” he tells the waiter.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

“What about the vegetables?” says the waiter.

Winston glowers and looks around the table. “They’ll have the same.”

But I digress.

After the end of the fifth Labour Government, the party experimented with several leaders: Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe, Andrew Little and, finally, Jacinda Ardern.

Traditionally, National tends to be a bit more elegant in its leadership changes – for example, most recently John Key suddenly stood aside and deftly passed the job to Bill English.

However, now in opposition, National is having a right old ruck over leadership since English announced he’d be wandering off. At the time of writing, Simon Bridges, Amy Adams, Judith Collins, Steven Joyce and someone called Mark Mitchell had all announced they were candidates. To be honest, I suspect the entire National caucus consider themselves ideal leaders – it’s just that they don’t have any friends to nominate them for the job, unlike the five contenders.

Actually, I am not too sure that Mitchell has anyone to nominate him, and his pitch for the leadership seems to be some kind of “Hail Mary pass” in the forlorn hope it might somehow work.

Judith has not many more friends to back her in caucus, either, but her tactics are to try to stir up National’s rank and file to pressure their local MP to vote her in. This strategy might work in the Labour Party, where the membership and trade unions also get a voice in appointing the leadership, but in National, caucus members get the sole say in who will be boss.

Newshub’s Duncan Garner cruelly refers to Judith as the “nuclear option” for National, because as Leader of the Opposition she would have several megatons of effect on New Zealand politics, but she would probably irradiate her own party as well. Sir Robert Muldoon was a nuclear-powered leader in opposition and very effective at detonating the third Labour Government, but then he became Prime Minister for three long, destructive terms, and history’s judgment of him is negative in the extreme.

Whoever gets to lead National faces a problem. Opposition parties don’t so much win elections as governments tend to lose them. Everything hinges on whether Labour can retain its support. There are three Budgets between now and the next election, and the Government will have to deliver to its supporters.

At the moment, Labour is gobbling up its support partners’ votes. With NZ First down to 3% in the polls, you’d need a microscope and an ECG machine to detect its support, and the Greens cling to a death-defying 5%. Should Labour continue to consolidate Government support around itself, its partners may fail to get any seats in the next election.

Meanwhile, National has to hold the level of support it currently has, if not improve on it. The next Parliament could look rather like an old-fashioned first-past-the-post outfit, with just two parties – and perhaps Act’s David “Nigel No Mates” Seymour – glaring across the chamber at each other.

This article was first published in the March 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.