Frank conversations on National's leaders

11:30 am on 31 January 2018

It's no surprise the National Party is starting to have internal discussions about the leadership of the party as it recovers from the election loss.

National Party leader Bill English (centre) and Paula Bennett (2nd right).

Bill English (centre) and Paula Bennett (2nd right). Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Some MPs are agitating for a change in leadership - but not immediately - and the focus is on the deputy Paula Bennett rather than the leader Bill English himself.

There is no sense from MPs they want to remove Mr English until he signals he wants to move on, but that could change as the year progresses if the caucus feels he is not taking the party in the right direction.

The caucus is still grappling with the fact that despite winning the biggest party vote, National failed to secure the Government benches after the coalition negotiations with New Zealand First.

It is coming to grips with the fact it is in opposition for at least three years, but there is still a sense of aggrieved disbelief that Labour managed to end up on the government benches.

That has inevitably led to questions about why the coalition talks failed, and who should take the blame.

Some MPs believe the leadership team did not do enough to establish a relationship with Winston Peters and New Zealand First throughout the last term, and question the strategy of the choice of negotiators who ended up at the table.

The caucus will also ask itself whether the leadership team of Bill English, Paula Bennett and Steven Joyce, in the finance role and campaign strategist, is the right team to lead it into the 2020 election, against the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

National is in a similar situation to that faced by Labour during the the time of then-Prime Minister John Key. Efforts to 'out-John Key' by trying to match his approach were ultimately doomed to fail.

The party has a solid support base and if it tries to outmatch Labour or the Greens on their ground it runs the risk of alienating its supporters.

There are 56 National MPs in this caucus and there will be a vast array of different views, emotions and ambitions.

Those with their eye on the leadership will be cautious about moves that could be seen to undermine Mr English but will also be aware opportunities may present themselves.

It is up to the caucus whether that is sooner rather than later.

When John Key resigned at the end of 2016 Jonathan Coleman and Judith Collins both contested the leadership against Bill English, but withdrew from the race when it became clear he had the numbers.

Simon Bridges, representing the back benches, went up against Paula Bennett for deputy; he too bowed out as the level of her support became apparent.

A possible leadership combination could be Simon Bridges, Amy Adams and Jonathan Coleman, in no particular order, and Judith Collins has never been shy about her leadership ambitions.

The party goes to Tauranga for a caucus retreat late next week. It does not appear a leadership vote will be forced at that meeting, but there will be some frank conversations about how the leadership and the caucus are going to tackle what will be a very challenging year.

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