26 Oct 2017

Who’s next for National?

12:34 pm on 26 October 2017

Watch the throne.


The usual suspects, or someone younger?

The usual suspects? Or someone younger? Photo: Image: The Wireless

Bill English wants a third crack at winning an election in 2020.

The rural-adjacent Southlander survived a caucus meeting earlier this week and was re-elected as National Party leader. Paula Bennett will remain deputy leader.

Political commentator Ben Thomas says English is in a position where he can remain as long as he wants: “He won 44.6 percent of the vote in the general election and in the last week of polls was the country's preferred Prime Minister. The decision whether to go is his alone."

RNZ political editor Jane Patterson says English’s leadership is secure, at least while the polls remain in his favour.

“If, and when things start to slide, there might be some leadership rumbles. With a huge backbench like that, there’s going to be more competition with more time on their hands,” she says.

“It will be a challenge for English to keep 56 MPs, a great number of whom have been ministers, occupied and not thinking about challenges.”

And so with the help of Patterson, Thomas and commentator, Dr Bryce Edwards, we dive into National’s list to assess the potential candidates to one day lead the blue team.



An obvious succession choice would be English’s current deputy.

Bill English and Paula Bennett

Bill English and Paula Bennett Photo: Rebekah Parsons-King/RNZ

But Jane Patterson says Bennett wouldn’t necessarily be next in line: “She may have been seriously considered during the last leadership change, but that was to take over an incumbent, stable Government.”

“If there was another leadership change during the current term, the imperative for the party would be different and they would be looking for someone to take on Jacinda Ardern - that could be a younger, new generational leader and the party may look further down the ranks.”

Dr Edwards says Bennett can probably be ruled out: “She hasn’t achieved enough or proven herself … although she may still have some room to reinvent herself and redeem her image.”


Bridges has nailed down the Tauranga electorate since 2008, yet is still only a scratch over 40.

Simon Bridges.

Simon Bridges. Photo: RNZ/Rebekah Parsons-King

Dr Edwards says he is definitely a leadership contender: “His relative youth and dynamism give him a boost. He would be seen as ‘new generation’ taking over the reins of the party.”

Bridges has received some flack in the past for his thick “New Zelland” accent, but Dr Edwards says that can be a positive.

“The voting public doesn’t want polished states-people as leaders, they want ordinary folk running the country.”

Patterson says Bridges, who was a candidate for deputy leader during the previous leadership race, would definitely be a contender. She says he can bridge the gap (pun intended) between some dissatisfied backbenchers and senior MPs.

“He’s smart and seems to have good support within the caucus.”


Jonathan Coleman.

Jonathan Coleman. Photo: The Wireless: RNZ/Claire Eastham-Farrelly

The former Health Minister said there was significant appetite within National's caucus for generational change when he challenged Bill English for the party leadership in December.

“That’s a difficult claim for a 51-year-old to make when he’s seeking to lead the opposition against a 37-year-old Prime Minister,” says Ben Thomas.

Thomas says Coleman’s “head-in-the-sand” approach to mental health may have cost his party dearly on polling day.

Dr Edwards says Coleman presents himself as a centrist politician - something that could work in his favour.

“But he hasn’t proven himself yet - despite his potential and talent - and comes across as too much of a politician for this modern age.”


Jane Patterson says if things go sour, the party could turn to a transitional leader, and Collins would be in the mix.

Judith Collins.

Judith Collins. Photo: RNZ/Rebekah Parsons-King

“She is feisty, she is keen and is staying on in Parliament. Perhaps the party would be looking for some of that mongrel to take on Labour in the House, where Jacinda Ardern is really going to be tested.”

Patterson says Collins has lacked caucus support in the past, but circumstances have changed.

Ben Thomas says Collins would make an effective “attack politician” in opposition and could help the party membership and MPs rally.


If Bill English had resigned this week, Ben Thomas says Paula Bennett and Joyce would have been the two most obvious contenders to replace him.

Steven Joyce with Bill English in happier times.

Steven Joyce with Bill English in happier times. Photo: RNZ/Diego Opatowski

He describes Joyce as National’s second-best performer in the media and the public, after English.

“He came into Parliament with the reputation of a backroom operator, but he enjoyed his role as the National Government’s ‘first responder’ to Labour policy announcements, so has experience in an opposition-type role.”

Dr Edwards says while Joyce is popular within the caucus, “he is not respected enough amongst the public”.

“Although he is an extremely smart operator, he doesn’t have enough charisma or likeability to be a leader,” he brutally says.


Dr Edwards reckons the former Minister of Justice is the “clear front-runner” among the more senior MPs.

Amy Adams.

Amy Adams. Photo: RNZ/Rebekah Parsons-King

“Amongst the public she has a very low ‘negative-rating’ - she does not come with a lot of negative publicity and dislike. She really is the least controversial aspiring leader,” he says.

The former Justice Minister is highly rated within the party and was last year rated the Politician of the Year by publication Trans Tasman.



Kaye was a cabinet minister for four years and comfortably held potentially tricky ACC, Civil Defence and Education portfolios.

Ben Thomas says she has been plagued by superficial comparisons with the new Prime Minister for much of her career.

“But she won Auckland Central for National for the first time ever and has beaten Jacinda Ardern twice in the electorate,” he says.

“She was one of the hardest workers in the National Government, is a consummate local MP, and was one of the few ministers able to think independently from her officials.”

Patterson, too, says although Kaye, 37, hasn’t shown leadership pretensions, she is “very ambitious”.

“She was highly rated by John Key and given significant portfolios - I would put her in the mix somewhere.”

Dr Edwards reckons Kaye is the next leader of the National Party if she wants the job - whether in six months, or three years or beyond: “Nikki Kaye perfectly fits the image of a liberal and modern National Party.”

“The party has no future if it can’t reinvent itself as being more demographically representative of the wider population. Therefore the ‘future is female’ in National, and it’s also younger and browner ... it needs to have a female leader, and ideally a younger one,” he says.


Chris Bishop.

Chris Bishop. Photo: RNZ/Rebekah Parsons-King

National’s other young former tobacco lobbyist didn’t fare so well, but Bishop seems to have his head screwed on a little tighter than Todd Barclay.

The 33-year-old claimed a bit of an upset win in Hutt South last month and has already had the luck of having two Member's Bills drawn from the ballot.

“He was National’s best performer outside of cabinet in the past term,” says Ben Thomas.


Who is Todd Muller, you ask? He’s a former businessman who used to work as a staffer for Jim Bolger.

Todd Muller.

Todd Muller. Photo: VNP/Daniela Maoate-Cox

He’s also, according to Ben Thomas, a real dark horse: “Todd Muller may have publicly demonstrated the qualities that many insiders see as putting him in the frame for the leadership.”

Dr Edwards says Muller, 48, and former Defence Minister, Mark Mitchell, are lesser-known MPs to keep an eye on.



Sarah Dowie.

Sarah Dowie. Photo: VNP/Daniela Maoate-Cox

Invercargill’s MP since 2014 took a big leap in National’s rankings this year, jumping from 57 to 41. She’s now comfortably held the blue electorate in two elections.

The former lawyer has an interesting background - at 15 she spent time in the Soviet Union as a dancer and has worked for the Department of Conservation.

The party leadership may be far from her current thinking, but she’s a good orator and one to watch.


The 26-year-old new MP is no stranger to The Wireless. We spoke to him as part of our “Beyond the Beehive” election tour and again earlier this month.

Simeon Brown on the campaign trail in Howick.

Simeon Brown on the campaign trail in Howick. Photo: The Wireless/John Lake

He is ambitious - he ran an unsuccessful campaign in the red Manurewa electorate in 2014 - and very articulate. The party moved him to the safe Pakuranga seat this year.

The former banker describes himself as a bit of a centrist who has close friends across the political spectrum.

Ben Thomas describes him as socially conservative and says religious MPs like him are less likely to attain the leadership.