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National’s ABC leadership rivals emerge

The three main contenders for Bill English’s throne have revealed themselves - but who made the best impression? Sam Sachdeva reports on a day of frenzied activity at Parliament.

In New Zealand politics, knowing your ABCs has been more often associated with Labour (just ask David Cunliffe).

But as National looks to improve on their English, an alphabet soup of would-be successors has emerged: Adams, Bridges and Collins.

After an apparent moratorium on manoeuvring in the wake of the National leader’s unexpectedly swift resignation on Tuesday morning - “Today is about Bill,” the caucus chorused - it was all on for young and old.

First off the mark was Judith Collins, who has never been backwards in coming forward.

The medium of choice for her announcement? Twitter: fitting, given it is where she has been needling government ministers, directly and indirectly, since the election.

Collins is a polarising figure both within the caucus and with the wider public, and would represent a swing to the right.

Yet she would also be well suited to the task of knocking off Jacinda Ardern’s halo, given her bona fides as an attack dog and experience of opposition politics.

She has also made a point of cultivating National backbenchers - groundwork that could pay dividends given every vote counts the same.

Ultimately though, it feels like a doomed bid, although not one without value given the ideological battles that may be fought within the party in the coming years.

Simon Bridges, Amy Adams and Judith Collins all bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Next up was Simon Bridges, whose unadulterated ambition from the cross benches made his announcement inevitable.

Fronting the media by himself on Parliament’s black and white tiles, Bridges said a number of colleagues had asked him to run and touted a blend “of both generational change but also experience”.

One of the knocks against the Brylcreemed Bridges has been an air of arrogance, and he did little to dispel that with the unfortunate decision to occasionally refer to himself in the third person: “I’m focused on Simon Bridges becoming the leader of the National Party.”

But Simon Bridges also offers a compelling case to Simon Bridges’ colleagues, providing a bridge between the last Government’s power brokers and the ambitious backbenchers looking to rise up the ranks.

Of all three candidates he is perhaps the most personable, the most likely to pass the so-called beer test, while snide digs about his (admittedly broad) accent could in fact endear him to a section of the public.

But when it came to optics, Amy Adams blew him out of the water.

Striding across the parliamentary forecourt, Adams had a gaggle of caucus colleagues in tow as she made her way to the press conference on a sunny spot of grass.

The Selwyn MP most closely represents the continuity choice, admitting that she had “pretty much begged” English to stay on.

But the MPs she brought with her were a shrewd mix of various factions: liberal “wets” Nikki Kaye and Chris Bishop with conservative “drys” Maggie Barry and Tim Macindoe, Bishop representing the backbenchers and Kaye the political veterans, representatives from North Island and South.

As first days go Adams was the one to beat, although as all the candidates are keen to point out, it’s a marathon and not a sprint.

Adams is seen by some as a political wonk rather than someone with the common touch - she’s earned unfavourable comparisons to British Prime Minister Theresa May, also known as the May-bot.

But she made the best impression of the three candidates, talking about her blend of experience both as a commercial lawyer and the wife of a Canterbury sheep farmer - “Happy Valentine’s Day Don, this wasn’t how I’d planned it,’ she quipped - while also sharing a small snippet of her childhood.

“I grew up with a solo mother, we didn’t have a lot of money but she instilled in me the understanding of hard work and the necessity to get on and provide and get a good education and build a life for yourself.”

It helped that the MPs with her looked on adoringly as she spoke and gushed about her: she was “an extraordinary New Zealander”, Kaye said, “one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with”, Macindoe added.

There are still questions about whether she can succeed with the retail politics now deemed necessary, and if she can satisfactorily raise her public profile.

But as first days go Adams was the one to beat, although as all the candidates are keen to point out, it’s a marathon and not a sprint.

They were careful to avoid personal attacks, mindful of English’s warning to avoid internal squabbling, and policy was notably low on the topics of discussion.

More contenders may yet enter the ring - Mark Mitchell is seriously mulling a bid, although he may be an electoral cycle or two too early - but these appear to be the three real runners.

Now it’s time for the ABCs to do their maths - and with the best part of two weeks still to run, it will be some time until we know for sure who has the numbers.

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