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Muller plays it safe with National reshuffle

Todd Muller’s first reshuffle as National Party leader was more about the return of a political veteran than any new stars, while an awkward exchange with deposed leader Simon Bridges offered a hint of a worst-case scenario

With just over three months until advance voting begins, new National leader Todd Muller has precious little time to stamp his mark on the party.

His first chance to show what a Muller-led National Party would look like came on Monday afternoon, when he announced a reshuffle of his 55-strong caucus.

In truth, it was not the bloodletting it could have been.

Bridges backers Paul Goldsmith and Mark Mitchell kept high rankings and most of their old portfolios, while senior MPs Michael Woodhouse and Louise Upston also held onto their high-profile subject areas of health and social development respectively.

Nicola Willis, who played an instrumental role in Muller’s coup, was the biggest winner outside of the leadership positions as she skyrocketed from 45th to 14th and picked up the significant housing and urban development portfolio.

There seemed to be few other favourites vaulted up the rankings, although Judith Collins has taken on the heavy-duty roles of economic development, regional development, and shadow Attorney-General (perhaps Muller hopes she will be kept too busy to plot any mischief).

There were casualties other than Bridges and Bennett.

Bridges loyalist Todd McClay fell six spots, losing economic development to Collins and small business to Muller.

And in a sign of how quickly political allegiances can change, Alfred Ngaro - once part of the self-proclaimed ‘Four Amigos’ with Muller, Mitchell and Hutt South MP Chris Bishop - plummeted nine spots to 20th, having earlier criticised the “dishonourable and disrespectful” leadership spill.

But the biggest surprise - albeit one hinted at in advance - was Amy Adams’ decision to postpone her impending retirement and instead take up a newly created Covid-19 recovery portfolio.

A strategic role for Adams

Adams had announced her retirement last year, saying: “I want my life back.”

But Muller appears to have convinced her to put her life on hold - a change of heart she insists is not due to the change of leadership, although circumstances would suggest otherwise.

“As Todd has said the last eight weeks have changed everything, and like all of you I've been watching the most remarkable suite of challenges facing this country,” Adams said.

“And if I can be of any help at all in helping New Zealand, think about how it works its way through those challenges, then that's something I feel duty bound as a proud Kiwi to do.”

With National having already selected Nicola Grigg to contest Adams’ Selwyn seat, she will now be forced to re-enter Parliament through the list - although given her spot in third on Muller’s caucus ranking and the likelihood of a similarly high place on the party’s election list, that shouldn’t be a problem.

The Covid recovery portfolio she takes on is an intriguing one, seemingly more about strategic coordination behind the scenes than any role in the limelight.

“What we want to do is ensure that every part of our team, every part of our process is grouped into the core components of a recovery centre, and every single one of those people in those teams is focused on comprehensive integrated planning and delivering it to them,” Adams said.

That would seem to play to her strengths as someone who has always been considered a policy wonk rather than a retail politician.

The role of Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett in Todd Muller's National Party will need some further clarification. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Yet to be resolved is what Muller will do with the man he usurped.

The National leader said Bridges had told him “he needs time to reflect on his future” - a claim almost instantly contradicted by the Tauranga MP, who confirmed he would stand for re-election and told Newsroom (along with other media): “I am not considering my future. Just having a small amount of time to take stock after the loss on Friday.”

It is unclear how the miscommunication occurred, but there was an undeniable awkwardness as Bridges appeared to resist an effort to nudge him out the door.

To be fair, Muller said his predecessor would have a role in his Cabinet if National won power - but it is not clear whether such an offer would be accepted, with Bridges saying he was happy to focus on his electorate for the time being.

The nightmare scenario for Muller and his team would be a bitter ex-leader unburdened by any major portfolio responsibilities and free to throw rocks from the back benches in the style of Tony Abbott in Australia.

Bennett may also be smarting after losing the role of National campaign chair to Gerry Brownlee. Having stepped aside from her Upper Harbour electorate to focus on the party’s election strategy, any slide down the party’s list could put her job in jeopardy.

Of course, Bridges and Bennett may yet decide to commit to Muller’s vision, given the possibility of regaining ministerial portfolios in the coming years.

But managing that relationship will be crucial if the new National leader is to avoid falling foul of the same instability that accounted for Bridges.

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