New National Party leader Christopher Luxon will set out his new line-up on Monday, and negotiating the various camps in his caucus will require him to have the balancing skills of a tightrope walker.
The risk is not that any of the MPs will seek to undermine him – it is whether they will be able to resist trying to undermine each other.
Unlike the John Key and Bill English deal of 2006, Luxon has not used the deputy leadership to cut a deal or mend a rift with a rival.
He opted for a woman and a liberal – Nicola Willis – to balance out his own male, conservative leanings.
On Friday came his first big “unity” move – giving the 3rd slot – and the most powerful portfolio of finance to Simon Bridges.
Below that, Luxon does not have to take into account loyalties to him personally – he owes nobody. Even Bridgesonly ceded the leadership to him after it became obvious he could not win.
Luxon has said he will talk to MPs and decide who is best placed where, according to talent and experience.
Luxon may believe in the Bible, but he will not take an “ask and it will be given unto you” approach.
He comes from a corporate background, and so MPs should expect performance to be a key factor in his deliberations. Performance can come down to whether an MP is interested in a portfolio, and therefore motivated.
Luxon will decide on the main attack lines to take against Labour – and put the strongest performers in those areas. That will be the economy, cost of living, Covid-19, housing, infrastructure and health as the government goes through reforms.
The roles that matter in National are different from those that matter in Labour.
As well as the obvious portfolios, it needs good people in law and order portfolios, and rural portfolios to try to win back the electorates it lost in the last election – and voters in provincial areas.
But Luxon does have to take some account of the friction lines in caucus.
The highest performing MPs in National come from each of its camps. It should give him a formidable front bench – provided they can play nicely together.
Luxon may well end up having to make an occasional captain’s call where there is division, and hope the rest abide by it.
The first test of that could be before Christmas over the future of National’s accord with Labour to allow more housing intensification – a deal brokered by Nicola Willis, but which many electorate MPs are baulking at after the reaction from constituents.
He may be over-optimistic to think that strength will continue in the back benches – there may have been a change in leader, but the MPs remain the same and every party has weak MPs.
He also has three former leaders to contend with – Judith Collins, Todd Muller and Bridges. They are the faces of what Luxon describes as the “four years we are trying to put behind us”.
Much of the dysfunction in National is tied to the moves from leader to leader over those four years – and who did what to whom.
Luxon himself does not fit into one of the camps – and that is his advantage.
He fostered relationships with the liberal camp fairly early on in his time as an MP, but also kept up good relationships with Simon Bridges and Mark Mitchell. He was respectful to Collins during her leadership.
Luxon’s support will be from MPs in all of those camps. His social conservatism will sit easily with the conservatives; his more centrist views on the economy and climate change will appeal to the liberals.
But he still has to try to balance them out to prevent rivalries and old grievances continuing.
As for Collins and Muller, Luxon has made much of the need to bury the hatchet on past grievances: “we’ll set the baggage aside”.
It is likely Muller will also have spoken to Luxon about whether he can now stay on at the next election – his decision to retire was a move that was forced on him by Collins and many felt it was disproportionate to the crime.
One thing that was something of glue in common between the camps was an increasing dislike of Collins.
Over her tenure, she punished Nick Smith, then Muller, then Chris Bishop and finally came for Bridges.
Eventually she made too many enemies to be able to survive.
The Bridges camp was already strong and the growing resentment among those close to Muller and in the liberals camp made it an easy choice to remove her as leader, even if there were differing opinions about who would replace her.
These are the camps – although there are some fuzzy edges to them.
The Bridges camp, and the conservatives:Dominated by men – Simon Bridges, Simon O’Connor (Bridges’ brother-in-law, a social conservative), Mark Mitchell, Paul Goldsmith, Michael Woodhouse, Todd McClay.Tim van de Molen also supported Bridges – sticking to his shoulder for a media standup the morning after Collins dropped her bombshell. Simeon Brown and Chris Penk are here by virtue of their beliefs, but have been close to Collins in the past as well and will easily swing in behind Luxon.
The core of the Bridges camp have stuck with him through thick and thin, some at a cost to themselves. Some of the alliance is forged on beliefs: the social conservatives clubbed together in the last term as Parliament faced a raft of conscience votes on abortion and euthanasia, as well as the debate around drug reform.
Some of it is based on friendship. McClay and Woodhouse have been Bridges’ numbers men, Goldsmith is one of his best mates, O’Connor is his brother in law. Mitchell is more of a centrist than a conservative, but became very loyal to Bridges after the move by Muller to roll Bridges.
Mitchell also played a part in the leadership contest – a middle-man who tried to get the two men to talk to come to a deal from almost the very start, although it was not until Tuesday morning that Bridges spoke to Luxon and conceded.
The Centrists and those with no strong fixed alliances: Louise Upston and Melissa Lee (have been Bridges supporters in the past), Shane Reti, Scott Simpson (leans liberal), Jacqui Dean (has backed Simon in the past), Todd Muller (closer to the liberals).
Barbara Kuriger was whip under Bridges and then Muller (she was close to Muller, but later dobbed him in for speaking to a media outlet anonymously about Harete Hipango). Veteran Gerry Brownlee had been Collins’ deputy, but stood down after the election. He was never a Bridges supporter but has kept his head down since the election.
Reti became Collins’ deputy and was a loyal deputy to the end – but his allegiance was by dint of the role he held rather than personal or historic allegiance to Collins. Collins often deputed Reti to deliver the punishments – it was Reti who first spoke to Muller about the Hipango issue, and Reti who was dispatched to try to corner Bridges ahead of her attempt to demote him for comments made to Dean five years ago. It did not go well.
The Collins camp: Judith Collins with Maureen Pugh, Harete Hipango, David Bennett, and Andrew Bayly who are considered her closest allies. All have benefited under Collins while Collins, Pugh and Hipango all had difficult relationships with Bridges.
Luxon was also respectful of Collins when she was leader.
They are the smallest and least important pack for Luxon to placate – but it would be difficult to try to force Collins to leave. She is a former leader and long-standing former Cabinet minister, regardless of how her leadership ended.
The Liberals: Backed Muller and then backed Luxon. Did not have the firepower to mount a coup for one of their own – their standard bearers such as Amy Adams and Nikki Kaye left before the last election.
The camp is now held up by Nicola Willis, Chris Bishop, Erica Stanford, and Matt Doocey. Willis, Bishop and Stanford are regarded as effective in their portfolios while Doocey is the party whip.
Much of the animosity in the caucus between Bridges’ supporters and Willis and Bishop is due to their role in the Muller coup. They have borne the brunt of the blame for that almost more than Muller himself. Those relationships will be the hardest test of Luxon’s “put the baggage behind us” ruling.
Stanford and Muller are good friends – but Stanford did not involve herself in the machinations of the coup. She was Bridges’ pick to be deputy had he won the leadership.
Willis and Bishop were also involved in Luxon’s leadership bid – Luxon has said he made it clear to MPs that he was running on a ticket with Willis as deputy.
The Newcomers: Intakes usually stick together and the 2020 intake is very small. Luxon is one. His companions are Nicola Grigg, Joseph Mooney, Penny Simmons, and Simon Watts.
Watts was reportedly involved in Luxon’s bid to get the numbers. This was the first leadership change since they became MPs, so none had been called on before to back another contender.
It is noteworthy the last time National had such a small intake was in 2002. That intake included Don Brash, Judith Collins, John Key – all three of whom went on to become a leader. Like Luxon, Brash became leader in his first term.
But the second in line – and the most successful – was John Key.
How Simon Bridges got outplayed … by Sir John Key
Almost five years to the day since John Key announced he was resigning as Prime Minister, the man he anointed as his successor – Christopher Luxon – took over the leadership of the National Party.
And that event showed just how strong Key’s influence in the party and its caucus still was, despite the years that had passed.
Luxon’s main rival Simon Bridges was outplayed by Sir John Key as much as by Luxon and Luxon’s backers. And Key barely had to lift a finger.
In his first media conference as leader, Luxon was at pains to insist Key had not been involved in mustering up the support he needed to take the leadership.
Key may not have actively been doing Luxon’s numbers, but that was partly because he did not need to. He almost certainly had an impact on Luxon’s success.
Once it became known publicly that Key had spoken to some MPs and told them he believed Luxon was the best choice, he barely needed to lift a finger. The job was done.
That news emerged in the Herald last Saturday after it was told he had spoken to three MPs on the phone. Key clarified that he had spoken to one MP of his own volition, and returned the calls of at least two others. But he also made it clear he was backing Luxon – and that was the most critical part.
The Herald has since been told those he spoke to included Luxon himself, Bridges and two others in Bridges’ camp – Mark Mitchell and Todd McClay. He was making it clear an uncontested election was the best option, and Luxon the best man for it.
And so Bridges found himself campaigning against Key as much as Luxon.
For some, backing Luxon was simply a matter of backing anyone who was not Bridges – that will include the Collins camp.
Others were in the devil we know, or devil we don’t quandary.
Some weren’t necessarily convinced about Luxon, who was still very much an unknown quantity. It was with those that Key’s endorsement was most critical. They trusted Key to know what was best, and to know if Luxon was up to it. It helped move them.
Key will also have advised Luxon on how best to deal with Collins and Bridges – and Key was advocating a split-gender split for leader and deputy.
The Smiling Assassin was back, and just as effective as ever.
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