Todd Muller steers National towards a kinder approach

Todd Muller successfully convinced his National Party colleagues that Simon Bridges was holding them back. Now he needs to show what, if anything, he can do to push them to victory, Sam Sachdeva writes

Entering Parliament as he prepared to end Simon Bridges’ time as National Party leader, Todd Muller had little to say to the press pack waiting for him.

But whatever he said to his 54 colleagues in the caucus room at midday, and in the days leading up to that secret ballot, clearly spoke volumes. 

Muller’s triumph over Bridges, and Nikki Kaye's over deputy leader Paula Bennett, owed much to a duo of damaging polls this week, showing National nosediving and about a third of its MPs losing their seats.

The Newshub and One News polls provided empirical evidence for the feeling that the phone was off the hook for Bridges when it came to the wider electorate, particularly compared to the commanding public popularity of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Muller’s inaugural press conference as leader took place in the same Legislative Council Chamber where Ardern debuted as Labour leader in 2017 - a parallel he did not shy away from drawing when asked about his limited lead-in to the election.

But while the first sprinklings of Ardern’s stardust were discernible on that first day, Muller was solid rather than spectacular, with neither tremendous stumbles nor soaring heights.

There were a few glimmers of the wit and charm which he displays in private: asked how he would improve his relative anonymity with voters, he quipped: “I'm really hopeful that I'll be on the news tonight.”

Todd Muller offered praise for Jacinda Ardern, but criticism of the Cabinet ministers behind her. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

But he seemed a little stiff at points, while his talk of “enterprise, reward for hard work, personal responsibility, and...the power of strong families and communities” hewed fairly closely to generic conservatism rather than anything groundbreaking.

Where Muller clearly wished to distinguish himself from Bridges was in the overtly negative approach which appeared to turn off so many voters during the Opposition’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

“First and foremost I'm about what's best for you and your family, not what's wrong with the Government,” he proclaimed, adding for the avoidance of any doubt: “I'm not interested in opposition for opposition's sake.”

It is an appealing message, and one which undoubtedly resonated with National MPs behind closed doors.

But whether he proves able to deliver on that is another matter entirely; it is easy to forget now, but Bridges once pledged to not just bash this government up but really do some thoughtful work before finding that did not come easily to him.

There is some reason to think Muller may have better luck though, given his previous work with the Government - in particular Greens co-leader and Climate Change Minister James Shaw - to develop a Zero Carbon Bill which National could support.

He was notably more positive than Bridges when speaking about how both Ardern and her government had handled the Covid-19 crisis.

“You have two or three people who you might think [are] heavy lifters in that Cabinet, and as I mentioned before, there are 17 empty chairs."

Where his predecessor had generally credited New Zealanders themselves with the success of the lockdown, Muller described the Government’s work to avoid the worst of the virus as impressive overall.

He did wield the double-edged sword of complimenting Ardern as a “tremendous communicator”, but went further than that: “I think that as a person, she's very impressive, approachable, down to earth.”

The initial tactic seems to be pointing out the weaknesses of the team behind the Prime Minister, rather than trying to knock off Ardern’s halo - a sensible move given both her skyrocketing approval ratings and the constant stumbles of ministers like David Clark.

“You have two or three people who you might think [are] heavy lifters in that Cabinet, and as I mentioned before, there are 17 empty chairs...

“To judge the Government on the ability to manage a crisis, eight weeks in a health context, against the threshold of, do you have the capacity sitting around the Cabinet to design an economic recovery when all your performance measures in the previous two and a half years have been a failure? I think that doesn't work, I think the country knows that doesn't work.”

It is not strikingly different from Bridges’ strategy of promoting National’s economic bona fides - then again, it was not the message but the messenger which seemed to cause much of the party’s electoral strife.

Muller may not enjoy a honeymoon with the public, but he at least comes without the baggage that was weighing Bridges down - and with some time to develop his own plan of attack and senior team, he will be able to answer questions of policy and personnel with greater specificity.

Simon Bridges' future within the National Party is currently unclear. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

And there are some big calls to make, with the fate of the ousted leadership team towards the front of the queue.

For all his failings, Bridges is still an experienced MP with ministerial experience, while Bennett is currently National’s 2020 campaign chair.

Andrew Little has shown that an ousted leader can still be a valuable asset - but will Bridges (or Bennett) be as forgiving about being pushed out during a national crisis?

Both were understandably non-committal about their plans on Friday, and it will ultimately be up to them whether they accept any senior role that is offered.

But Muller will have to keep at least some of Bridges’ backers in prominent positions for the sake of unity (notably, he immediately committed to retaining Paul Goldsmith as finance spokesman) while rewarding his loyal lieutenants like Kaye, Chris Bishop and Nicola Willis.

The deck remains stacked against the party: it still lacks electoral friends, and at 30 percent or thereabouts will have to increase that number at least half again in just a few months to have any chance of forming government.

There are unlikely to be wholesale policy changes, but the new leadership team may “polish or check and adjust” as Muller put it.

Intriguingly, Bridges’ decision to rule out any coalition talks with New Zealand First may yet be revisited, and Winston Peters will certainly have less antipathy towards National’s new leader (asked about what he had in common with his former boss Jim Bolger, Muller noted that they both enjoyed a good single malt).

But before any post-election talks can take place, National has to be in a position to even get to the negotiating table.

The deck remains stacked against the party: it still lacks electoral friends, and at 30 percent or thereabouts will have to increase that number at least half again in just a few months to have any chance of forming government.

But the change of leadership may have been less about holding high office than holding onto their seats - and in that area at least, Muller still has time.

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