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National precariously placed as Muller goes

Todd Muller's stint as National leader has been cut short by a commendable decision to put his own wellbeing first - but now the party must try to find a path forward to September 19 

For all that National’s critics claimed to predict it, the news was a shock.

Just 53 short days after usurping Simon Bridges as National leader, Todd Muller himself was gone - of his own volition, a victim of the intolerable pressure that Parliament and politics can place on MPs.

In a nine-line statement emailed to media on Tuesday morning, Muller said it had become clear “that I am not the best person to be Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the New Zealand National Party at this critical time for New Zealand”.

He had reflected on his role over the weekend, following a particularly trying week sparked by National MP Hamish Walker’s foolish decision to share confidential Covid-19 patient data with the media.

The scandal sparked Walker’s retirement as an MP, Michelle Boag’s resignation from the National Party, and wider questions about the organisational culture within the caucus.

Yet while Muller did not cover himself in glory during his response and still had questions to answer, it did not appear a mortal blow for his leadership despite what some claimed.

Yet the Bay of Plenty MP’s handling of the affair in retrospect seems indicative of his wider discomfort with, and lack of readiness for, what is often labelled the worst job in politics.

From the start, Muller struggled with the demands of the job, and in particular the relentless spotlight placed on a party leader.

Muller should not be mocked, but applauded for being willing to make such a significant decision at a critical moment and put the wellbeing of himself and his family first.

His possession of a Make America Great Again cap, and the pale complexion of National’s front bench, were legitimate issues made much worse by how the leadership handled them.

The leader faced criticism for his invisibility at a time when he needed to be omnipresent in the media and making his case to voters, and was said to have remarked about the heavy workload and associated fatigue.

Muller acknowledged as much in his resignation letter, saying: “The role has taken a heavy toll on me personally, and on my family, and this has become untenable from a health perspective.”

Politics can be an incredibly punishing job, both physically and mentally, as politicians on both side of the House have shown this term.

Muller should not be mocked, but applauded for being willing to make such a significant decision at a critical moment and put the wellbeing of himself and his family first.

Now, the National caucus will turn its attention to who should replace Muller - and while there are a few different options, none are singularly compelling.

Former National leader Simon Bridges' stocks have rebounded since losing the top job, but the reasons why he was rolled have not miraculously disappeared. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Muller’s deputy leader Nikki Kaye has taken over from him in the interim, and there were many who questioned why their roles were not switched to begin with given Kaye’s ministerial experience. 

But more conservative caucus members who were already sceptical about National’s direction under Muller would hardly be likely to support the far more liberal Auckland Central MP, while Kaye caused her leader some of his earliest problems when she leapt to (incorrectly) label Paul Goldsmith as being Māori.

Bridges’ stocks have risen since he lost the top job, the Tauranga MP appearing more human and likeable thanks to all the yak-related opportunities that flow from a less hectic schedule.

But there was a reason he was rolled in the first place, and the fundamental problems with his negativity and inability to judge the public mood will not magically disappear if he is catapulted back into the role.

The decision to replace Bridges was in effect a vote of no confidence, a judgment backed by the fact that Muller swiftly exceeded his predecessor’s high-water mark in the preferred prime minister stakes, despite having less than two months in the job to Bridges’ two years.

And such a post-leadership bump is not unique: opposition leaders Andrew Little and David Shearer likewise benefited from moving out of a thankless job.

Then there is Judith Collins, always lurking just out of frame and ready to step up to her rightful place should the party ask.

National MP Judith Collins is perhaps the best candidate to assume the leadership at short notice, but comes with some notable political baggage. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Collins is battle-hardened and perhaps the best candidate to be plunged into the heat of an election campaign at short notice, given her experience in opposition and bona fides when it comes to skewering the Government.

Yet she would seem to face some of the same problems as Bridges when it comes to projecting a more positive tone, while she has not won over her colleagues in previous tilts at the leadership (although she may find more traction now given the circumstances).

Collins also comes with plenty of baggage, some of which was outlined (via rebuttals) in her recent book.

There is no perfect candidate, but National will have to choose someone regardless and hope for the best.

Then there are the second-order effects beyond who sits atop the party.

The uphill battle to dethrone Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party has become even more treacherous - the real task now may not be to reach the summit, but to set up base camp and hope to preserve enough political oxygen for another term in opposition.

Senior MP Amy Adams reversed her retirement plans after Muller replaced Bridges, getting a plum job as National’s Covid-19 recovery czar in return - will she re-retire if Bridges comes back, or if she is forced into a less appealing portfolio?

Could Paula Bennett and Anne Tolley - or for that matter, Jian Yang - pull an Adams and rescind their own retirements if a new leader offers them the right job?

Then there is the more prosaic but vital matter of branding and policy.

National developed a new slogan and billboards under Muller, on top of a revamped website with all of the remnants of Bridges’ leadership excised (policy discussion documents included).

The party will need to throw out most of that and start again, at a not insignificant financial cost, with precious little time for a new leader to sell a unique plan and policies to the electorate.

The uphill battle to dethrone Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party has become even more treacherous - the real task now may not be to reach the summit, but to set up base camp and hope to preserve enough political oxygen for another term in opposition.

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