So John Key announced today he intends to resign as Prime Minister in a week’s time, heralding the end of a political era. (or perhaps a political error, take your pick) Coverage was initially not particularly clear on whether he’s to resign from Parliament at the same time, but it looks like he’s staying until the election at least, so no by-election for Helensville1.
There are several implications of this. For those who are not political nerds, all the new Prime Minister requires to be Prime Minister is the confidence of the House. That is, a majority of Parliament has to be willing to vote for the replacement. Essentially that means it will be an internal National choice that will then be endorsed by its coalition partners. We don’t get a “by-election” or anything of the kind, and Bill English doesn’t become Prime Minister automatically because he’s the deputy. Those are the sorts of things that happen in Presidential systems, we’re a Parliamentary democracy.
The most obvious fallout is that it’s absolutely going to cost National in polling going forward, and probably even in the Party Vote in 2017. A lot of the party stability was driven by the perception that Key was unassailable as a leader, while his resignation speech has talked up his caucus colleagues, all of them has significant problems as potential Prime Ministers. Let’s go through them:
The Throwback: Bill English
English, a former Leader of the Opposition, has tried to make a run at PM before, back in the Clark era. In National Party history, he had the second-worst election campaign ever, bested only by Don Brash’s later implosion. While he’s not unpopular within the National Party, it’s likely his appeal to soft National supporters is minimal, and wouldn’t be able to hold the “Key coalition” together. There’s also a good argument that English makes more sense as Finance Minister, although if John Key is staying in Parliament post-election, they could potentially swap roles. While he hasn’t succeeded in the past, he’s also in the interesting position of probably being the most popular option with the general electorate- initial (non-scientific) polls have Bill English as a favourite to replace Key, although this could be driven by the perception that he’s also the most likely option.
Key has said that if English puts his hat in the ring, he will have Key’s vote, making him a natural choice for establishment supporters, however there’s a real risk that English would simply be a caretaker Prime Minister who doesn’t look appealing compared to Little.
The Compromise: Paula Bennett
One of the most senior MPs, Bennett has a lot of the same advantages as a potential leader that John Key does- she’s from a more modest background, she’s popular within the party, and she has support with various factions within National. In many ways she’s a middle-of-the-road choice: not too liberal, not too conservative. Not too popular with the general electorate, but popular enough with core supporters. Bennett arguably represents the best bet at continuing National’s current political strategy of populist neoliberalism, where they pair a right-wing core economic agenda with poll-driven social policy.
The Conservative: Judith Collins
Collins is a bit of an interesting case here. Previously booted from her ministerial position for conflicts of interest, Collins has long been eying the leadership position, and is a favourite of the faction most opposed to Key’s leadership style: Conservative voters. Like a lot of the potential options, Collins isn’t particularly popular outside of core National voters, unlike the others, however, she’s actually viewed very negatively in the public, possibly due to her aggressive conservatism, possibly due to her perceived corruption. Either way, Collins is something of a Trump option: an aggressive conservative populist who the opposition views as an easy road to victory, but could surprise us.
The Strategist: Steven Joyce
Joyce, also a conservative in the same faction as Collins, has largely avoided controversy in his career, but also inspires deep hatred among liberal New Zealand. He is most likely remembered as “Dildo Baggins,” for self-explanatory reasons. If you’ve been living in a hole, please go and YouTube it, the rest of us will wait.
Joyce has many of the upsides of Collins, but without her aggressive style or the stink of scandal. While he might be a more palatable option to the liberal wing of the party, he’s arguably a less effective conservative, too.
Others: Brownlee, Adams, etc…
I’m about 90% sure one of the four listed above is going to be our next Prime Minister, but there are others inside cabinet who arguably could put forward something of a case for selection. The National Party is usually pretty serious about seniority, so I expect the only other MP with a shot at the top job is Gerry Brownlee, who is honestly an objectively worse pick than any of the four listed above, and doesn’t have the social intelligence to be Prime Minister.
My money at this stage is on Bennett, as she seems the least objectionable option that is most likely to be able to duplicate Key’s strategy, and to hold their caucus together.
Whoever National pick, they’re in for a tough ride. They have eight months of actual Prime Ministering before an election campaign. They will get the benefit of Key’s experience given he’s staying on as an MP, but that’s a very short time to make any differentiations you need, get a grip on the polls and make sure you’re not losing political ground in the transition, and to ensure you have an effective political strategy that works without Key. (although if they’re lucky and smart in their pick, their current strategy will be portable to whoever their new Leader is)
Ultimately, the winner from this news seems to be Andrew Little, who has gone from anticipating a general election against a Prime Minister that was more popular than him and needed to be torn down, to a battle against a neophyte leader who might face similar issues to Goff or the pack of Davids that preceded Little as Leader of the Opposition.