I’m frankly a bit puzzled when it comes to yesterday’s shock political news, and for one simple reason:
Contrary to what a number of people are saying (particularly the “SECOND ELECTION LOST IN A ROW” style of comments) – Bill English leaving the National Party Leadership and Parliament may not actually help contribute to a National-led government in 2020.
First up, it’s hard to see National actually improving its performance from Election Night. Their failures in the weeks after were those of negotiation [and, arguably, the fruit of ‘dirty tricks’ played *during* the campaign – the architects of which are all still around] rather than vote-garnering [they actually *increased* their number of votes over 2014].
As applies 2020, this therefore illuminates two prospective pathways to victory. The first of which, being somehow managing to lure one or the other of Labour’s C&S partners away through honeyed words and Ministerial portfolios, thus denying Labour the numbers to form a Government – because National’s doing so instead.
And already, we have a bit of an issue here. Insofar as it is difficult to see who National would be able to elevate from its Caucus to the top job who would be better equipped to negotiate with New Zealand First than English. Although a potential counter-argument would be if National somehow managed to find both a figure and sufficient motivation for attempting to negotiate with the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand instead. Which is, for any number of reasons, pretty seriously unlikely – but given English himself was prepared to extend the relative olive-branch of not smashing the Greens in the face with a stick after Election Night 2017 by leaving the door open to a call from James Shaw … perhaps in two and a half years’ time things might be different on one or both sides.
The second pathway is built around National increasing its share of the vote to the point at which a Labour-led Government becomes non-viable – either through something like NZF exiting Parliament altogether, and/or through National gaining votes, and/or through National somehow winding up in the same position they were in on Election Night 2014 [i.e. before the Specials and such came in] of being able to govern alone if they so chose.
This is, if anything, an arguably *more* difficult scenario now that Bill’s gone.
Because while English definitely seemed to lack a bit of lustre during his head-on engagements with Jacinda on the campaign trail last year, there is no denying that he quite successfully reached out to a reasonably broad portion of New Zealand. Not as a “charismatic” frontman [as people for some inexplicable reason seem to brand his predecessor, Key]; but as a “safe pair of hands” to the older demographics of potential swing-voters who’ve got mortgages and are anemic about the notion of financial shocks to their (credit) system.
National can either seek to find someone to replace that kind of cred – which will likely be something of an exercise in futility, as nobody else in their Caucus can actually front up and point to a record [however fudged and airbrushed and PR, SPIN, and DISTORT-ed] as Finance Minister that seemingly screams “steady as she goes” in the way that English could – or they can attempt to do something different.
Which quite likely means attempting to find an “Anti-Jacinda” to try and hew into Labour’s recently bolstered vote. Which is … not likely to be their most successful plan, if indeed they do attempt it. Many of Labour’s ‘new’ votes at the last Election came from people who didn’t vote in 2014. These people [and I don’t mean people who were under 18 at the time] are rather unlikely to wind up supporting National, for any number of obvious reasons. And many more of those aforementioned ‘new’ voters were either Greens or NZF supporters at previous Elections who’d decided to back Labour this time instead – so once again, a very tough prospect to drag over to the Right.
Meanwhile, for those ‘swing voters’ who DID previously support National, yet went over to Labour this time around – much of their decision-making appears to have been predicated upon the idea that National over the previous 9 years had become stale and wrongheaded in its governance. I’m not sure how a mere 3 years on, with a substantively similar Caucus and Front Bench, National will be able to meaningfully dispel that impression and convince people that putting them *back* in won’t ultimately result in a slightly rebranded “more of the same”.
But hey, maybe somebody’ll decide that Nikki Kaye vs Jacinda Ardern had one outcome [repeatedly] in Auckland Central over elections previous and hope against hope that it’ll work out similarly on the national stage.
It’s also worth noting that English’s elevation to Leader of National may very well have been responsible for some of New Zealand First’s flagging fortunes – “conservatives” suddenly having a reason to go back to the darker shade of Blue with a Capital C Catholic on a lot of social policy at the helm of the party and nation. English in Exile may therefore give New Zealand First a bit of a boost and help ensure it makes it over the 5% threshold as the “only” “conservative” voice left in Parliament [notwithstanding an older generation of National MPs who may see their own spate of retirements later in the Term]; thus further frustrating any National plans of denying Labour a support-partner or attempting to govern alone [something that will be much easier with the redistribution of seats that would take place if NZF had a large ‘wasted vote’].
In any case, with the singular exception of the New Zealand Labour Party in the past year … voters don’t like the appearance of instability generated by changing leaders in swift succession. The National Party isn’t *quite* at Labour-from-2008-2018 [more especially, 2011-2014] territory *just* yet, but it is worth noting that they’ll have had three leaders within the relatively short space of a year and a half.
If they get the *right* leader, that’s one thing. but I would be entirely unsurprised if infighting occurred and started leaching out into the public domain regardless. Particularly once Shadow-Cabinet appointments and suchlike are underway and people start “missing out”.
With an additional possibility that we may see something akin to what happened with Labour under Cunliffe – wherein a whole lot of Nats decide to put their focus on self-preservation rather than the previous and arguably quite remarkable interior discipline that National has managed to maintain for much of the last 9 years; motivated in no small part by scorn for the “wrong” figure in their individual eyes now being In Charge.
There’s also an interesting rhetorical calculation as to which ‘message’ would be better for National against the incumbent first-term Labour-NZF-(Greens) Government.
That of “things were better under the previous Government – hence why you voted for us”; or “things WILL be better under our NEXT Government”.
Obviously, National’s next choice of leader will have a considerable influence on how all of this plays out. I mean, the existence of an #ABC faction as applies Judith Collins means that despite her demonstrable ability at channelling and playing upon “the fears & prejudices of the aspirational lower middle class”, if she somehow manages to win the position, there’s a very real chance of her tenure not leading back into the Beehive.
Meanwhile, several of the other ‘clear contenders’ so to speak either run the risk of being perceived as too close to potentially less than optimal parts of the previous Government [Nick Smith on housing and the environment, for instance; or Paua Bennett on welfare [as in, as Minister, not her previous source of income] and ‘dirty tricks’], or as questionably relatable to the broader New Zealand electorate – especially in comparison to Ardern [e.g. Simon Bridges, who gives off a compelling impression that he’s finding his human suit to be a bit itchy form time to time].
In any case, the arguable strength, discipline, and cohesiveness with which the previous leadership transition from Key to English was carried out, was impressive.
I will be inordinately surprised if National manages to accomplish the same feat for a second time running.