22 May 2020

Todd Muller 'gives National a much better chance' - Linda Clark

From Checkpoint, 5:40 pm on 22 May 2020

National has ushered in its new leadership with Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye, but have they picked the people who can win the election in 120 days?

Former political editor, and now partner at law firm Dentons Kensington Swan Linda Clark told Checkpoint the leadership change was about more than the hope of winning the election.

"If they're going to lose, is the loss going to be a more respectable one? In other words, are more National MPs going to hold on to their jobs? That's first and foremost what [National] were thinking about today."

The second question for National was if it could "pull off the miraculous" and come back from recent low poll results to have a chance at winning in September 2020, Clark said.

"I think the answer to the first part of that is yes they're in a better position under Todd Muller than they were under Simon Bridges. The second one - it's a risk, he's got a big job ahead of him, he understands that, but I think he could be the right guy.

"He certainly gives National a much better chance at the election in a couple of months' time."

National had been a very successful opposition party, Clark said.

"It has kept Labour on the back foot for a lot of that time, it has held its polling, its popularity up in the 40s which is actually remarkable for any opposition. It has put the nail in the coffin for capital gains, KiwiBuild and a bunch of other policies, so there are strong people in that team and they know how to be a successful opposition.

Day that he wins leadership of Nats

Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

"Simon Bridges has tin ear, and we saw that most recently in the last couple of weeks and days even.

"He was very oppositional, very negative, very provocative, very bullish… and New Zealanders don't like that. Todd painted himself absolutely accurately, I think, today as someone who's going to campaign more positively.

"He said 'I'm interested in you, I'm not interested in knocking down the government'. He is authentic, what you see is what you get.

"He was a successful person in business, but he's been in politics and interested in politics through and through, and he was in politics when I was a reporter there a long time ago, and he was a young man working for Jim Bolger. And he's very much in the Jim Bolger school of politics."

Why is Nikki Kaye, a former government minister, not the new National leader?

Clark said the party was a broad church of conservatives and liberals.

"The most successful combinations in National's history have been when you've had a combination in the leadership between conservative on one side and progressive on the other.

"Nikki Kaye is probably the most liberal person, or one of the two or three most liberal people in that caucus. She simply would never have the numbers to take the top job, but in conjunction with a more conservative, sort of caring, conservative kind of leader figure, she would and obviously did have the numbers to come in as the deputy.

"But it's the combination of those skills, rather than having all of the skills, tied up in one individual.

"They are going to work very well as a team, and I think if you look at the body language between the two of them - I know it was an odd day today with the physical distancing and so forth, but - they have a relationship that I think will be more akin to Grant Robertson's relationship with Jacinda Ardern, where the two of them are mates, you can see that they get on with each other.

"They understand each other, they're not going to be treading on each other's toes, it'll be very much that kind of relationship, but obviously without the charisma factor that you get with the current Prime Minister."

Ousted deputy leader Paula Bennett has been National's campaign manager for the upcoming election. Clark said she would surely have to give up that role as well.

"Paula Bennett was a phenomenon in her own right, I'd be amazed if she stayed on at all and I don't see why she should or would.

"She would have run a very negative campaign, and [Muller] has made it very clear today that he is going to run a positive and a collaborative campaign.

"And watch that Winston Peters stuff because if the National Party doesn't do a deal or doesn't show that it's willing to do it a deal with Winston it will not get the numbers to get across on the night.

"And I would expect as a natural collaborator - which is what Todd Muller is - that he will actually put out an olive branch in that direction of eventually because he's pragmatic and that's why he will be valued by National."