Matthew Hooton: Now is Christopher Luxons time to step up

OPINION:

Speaker Trevor Mallard has brought forward National’s first post-lockdown caucus meeting. His rule changes, which remove the Prime Minister’s excuse fornot visiting Auckland, also allow Auckland-based National MPs to attend Parliament next week, including their Tuesday morning get-together.

Judith Collins’ comments after the death of former Auckland mayor and Governor-General Dame Catherine Tizard may not have been intended as nasty, but were capable of being read that way. They reminded National MPs of their deep concerns about Collins’political and personal judgment.

Nevertheless, as I discussed just before lockdown in August, the real danger to Collins is not the certainty of failure in 2023, but the chance National could win — and that probability is rising.

Polling, including by Talbot Mills, Curia, Roy Morgan and Lord Ashcroft, all indicates Jacinda Ardern remains by far the most popular political figure in New Zealand. Yet it is also unanimous that her star has waned.

While Ardern’s overall Covid response is still backed by a strong majority, there is grumpiness over the delay in her Government’s vaccine rollout and increasingly haphazard and poorly communicated reopening programme.

Covid Minister Chris Hipkins seriously musing about issuing holiday permits to Aucklanders underlines how out of touch Wellington-based decision-makers have become.

This will all pass with the arrival of the new normal in Auckland later this month and throughout the country by Christmas. But 2021’s messiness means Covid is no longer the indisputable positive for Ardern that it was in 2020.

Even many who regard the anti-vax and other protesters disrupting her schedule as loons feel free to chuckle in polite company that the Prime Minister is finally having a rough time. Unless it is held entirely behind closed doors — like this weekend’s Labour Party conference — Ardern’s visit to Auckland next week is unlikely to proceed without negative press.

Once all this is behind us, and Ardern and her senior ministers have themselves had a decent holiday to get their heads back together, attention will quickly turn to rising inflation and interest rates, difficult public-sector wage rounds, Labour’s complete failure on housing, poverty and inequality, and the demands of the most radical reform programme of any Government since 1993, much of which will be met with bitter opposition through 2022 before going the same way as the capital gains tax and KiwiBuild.

Like 2020, Labour’s 2023 campaign could still be based on the powerful proposition that you or your grandma might have been one of Shaun Hendy’s 80,000 people who would have died of Covid were it not for Ardern — but by election day, that will be at least two years in the past.

A National Party with anything remotely new and attractive to offer the middle class has a good chance of winning, as long as its leader is at least not despised — and as long as she or he doesn’thave bad blood with Winston Peters, whose campaign to regain the balance of power is running to plan.

The assumption is that Peters, having created Ardern, would take delight in bringing her time in the limelight to an end.

A majority of National MPs agree with the majority of New Zealanders thatCollins should never be Prime Minister — and at least two are seen as having plausible claims to the throne.

Simon Bridges’ well-planned and well-executed winter offensive to reclaim the leadership made him the early favourite, even if it has run out of puff in the spring. National MPs also fret that public and private polling still shows extreme dislike of the former leader, especially among women voters.

Nevertheless, Bridges would probably prevail were he to put his name forward on Tuesday, with Erica Stanford as his deputy, a promise that Chris Luxon will be finance spokesman and given free rein, and commitments that Shane Reti, Chris Bishop and Nicola Willis would sit on his front bench.

Such a well-organised and tidy reconciliation between National’s liberal and conservative wings would surely draw the support not just of the caucus, board and party membership, but of the architects of National’s 2008 triumph, such as John Key, Murray McCully, Bill English and Steven Joyce. National would look united and serious again.

To go quietly and give the new leader the platform of a byelection in Papakura, Collins would need to be promised in writing whatever she asked for outside Parliament if Bridges became Prime Minister.

The problem is that Bridges may not yet be ready to offer so much to those who deposed him as leader last year — despite their coup being what saved him from a humiliating 2020 defeat to Ardern, thereby keeping his longer-term prime ministerial ambitions alive.

Moreover, while Luxon may have been happy with such a deal on the assumption Ardern will get a third term, his calculations must be entirely different if the prime ministership is in play.

The former Air New Zealand chief executive and Key protege dare not risk Bridges becoming Prime Minister, dashing his own ambitions for the top job. He did not quit his job and enter Parliament to be an English to Bridges’ Key, keeping the books while waiting for the boss to step down.

If Luxon perceives any risk that Bridges is about to strike, he must take the initiative himself. Luxon’s friends say his move was planned for next year, but — as with Ardern’s unravelling Covid response — events are set to force his hand.

Some National MPs worry about Luxon’s strong religious beliefs. He was one of just 15 MPs across all parties to vote against legislation in March to allow safe zones for women to be free from protesters within 150 metres of an abortion clinic. Not even Bridges, also anti-abortion and a self-declared happy clapper, was that extreme, voting with the majority.

But Luxon, with no open wounds from last year’s coup, may be more inclined to form the necessary partnership with Stanford and the party’s other liberals, and to offer Bridges free rein in finance. Such an arrangement would also be strongly welcomed by the party’s membership and board, and draw the support of doyens like Key, English, McCully and Joyce.

A final consideration for both Bridges and Luxon: Is it too early? Would it be better to let Collins flounder through the summer? Until recently, National MPs were adamant the answer to both questions was yes. Now they seem likely to back whichever of the contenders is bold enough to first put up their hand.

– Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.

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