And so farewell, Bill English. No more stupid snaps on Twitter of him grinning over a spaghetti-topped pizza. No more inane photocalls to ‘liven up’ his image. No more celebrity boxing matches. Politics is often a shallow business: this is unsurprising, if you consider how fickle and shallow most of the electorate’s grasp of policies actually is. It is also why gobshite populists often thrive, sadly. And this is what makes the step from nerdy policy wonk to Prime Minister a difficult one. If, for good or ill, as diverse a bunch as Kirk, Muldoon, Lange, Bolger, Clark, Key and Ardern all had or have that wretchedly indefinable quality of “X factor”, to Bill English, the phrase probably just meant a lowbrow piece of reality TV that his kids might have enjoyed. At his resignation presser, flanked by his family, you could almost see a few brown hairs had come back. Now he could take on a new challenge, untrammeled by the thankless task of being Leader of the Opposition. I am sure he could compare notes with Andrew Little on the restorative health benefits of quitting the Worst Job In Politics.
Whatever one thinks of his political and social beliefs, English at least showed a willingness to think the unthinkable, and base it on evidence, such as his infamous quote that “prisons are a fiscal and moral failure”. This is not infamous, of course, to any progressive who has long understood the utter failure, social and economic, of ‘easy’, tough guy, custodial solutions that much of our corrections system offers. But for the National faithful, for whom prison is a deserved moral outcome for wrongdoers, and no two ways about it, this would have caused more than a little disquiet. Garth McVicar screeched ‘betrayal’. Even his flagship Social Investment Agency always seemed something that many of his colleagues liked to champion to the media without walking the walk, so to speak.
But Bill snatched defeat from the jaws of victory last spring, and the buck had to stop there. His decision to call it a day was his to make, but only so long as he made it, sooner rather than later, before the 2020 election. And around 11am today, his successor will be chosen.
To say this leadership election is uncharted territory is a huge understatement. David Farrar thinks that the fact that five candidates have chucked their hat in the ring is a positive for National as it opens the debate. Certainly, a ‘proper’ contest is taken by political parties as a sign of good health. But the truth is, wide open contests like this are rarely a good sign. They are also rare.
Virtually every change of leader National have ever had has involved a replacement rolling an incumbent or a straight two-horse race when a leader has stepped down. The one exception, when Muldoon fought on after his 1984 snap election loss, and stood against McLay and Bolger, hardly counts, as Piggy was a busted flush with most of his caucus colleagues by this point, and was obstinately trying to save some face. The benefit of this is that a clear winner is anointed who has sufficient momentum to see off potential rivals for the medium term.
Labour, too, have historically had either caucus coups to depose a struggling leader, or a no contest coronation (Goff succeeding Clark). The recent exceptions, when the party changed the rules to allow ordinary members and affiliates a say, illustrate the point I am trying to make. David Cunliffe cultivated a lot of support from ordinary members but was loathed by his caucus – a recipe for infighting culminating in Labour’s nadir of 25% in 2014. The election that produced Andrew Little as leader was nailbitingly close, and so there was always a sense of doubt as to whether Labour had got the right guy. Labour knew the public had tired of leadership contests, and so they showed admirable public support for Little, but it did not show in the polls until his replacement with Ardern: a good old-fashioned retirement to the study with revolver and whisky, followed by an emphatic coronation of his successor.
Whoever wins today – and the smart money says it is a toss-up between Bridges and Adams – will call for unity. But unity emerges from successful leadership, and not the other way around. And the elephant in the room is Judith Collins. She is a formidable opponent with a strong level of support among National grassroots (just read the comments on Kiwiblog and WhaleOil if you have the stomach for it). Yet, she has too many caucus enemies and too few friends, and so her candidacy, like Mitchell’s and Joyce’s is about raising or maintaining profile for frontbench place. Or, like Cunliffe, going directly over the heads of her caucus colleagues and pitching herself to the grassroots. She wouldn’t connive to get the rules changed to allow members a say in future contests, would she?
This is where it gets interesting: if the winner feels obligated to offer plum roles to his or her defeated opponents, it reduces the scope for rewarding one’s supporters. And yet leaving someone like Collins out in the cold is also dangerous. For once, the size of National’s caucus is an issue here: too many MPs with ambition will be sitting on the sidelines, watching and waiting.
There is also the prospect that this contest will bring National’s ideological tussle bubbling to the surface. John Key kept the lid on this effortlessly with strong leadership and high polling. But parties are simply less inclined to show self-discipline in opposition. Without the focus of governance and ministerial responsibility, MPs and members feel they have more luxury to consider the best ideological foot forward, and that is when the infighting starts.
National have always dismissed ideological infighting as a disease of the left, conveniently forgetting that the last stoush between the socially progressive neolibs and more Muldoonist interventionist conservatives led to a certain W. Peters walking out of the party in 1993. Get out your popcorn and watch it all unfold.