You are not permitted to download, save or email this image. Visit image gallery to purchase the image.
National, the bastion of political conservatism in New Zealand, did something wildly radical yesterday and dumped its leader with an election looming.
Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller, virtually unknown to the general public until this week, convinced enough of his caucus colleagues that previous leader Simon Bridges could not win on September 19, in a remarkable coup that few saw coming.
Mr Muller’s challenge was brave, audacious, and clinically executed.
His rural conservative background was astutely balanced alongside the urban liberal perspective of Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye as deputy, and for enough of his colleagues that offered a glimmer of hope for better in four months’ time.
Although it is very early days, at his press conference yesterday Mr Muller showed a dry sense of humour which will be invaluable on the campaign trail; to a question on how he would lift his previously low profile Mr Muller quipped that he hoped he would make news tonight.
A few more well-chosen lines like that and Labour may find that they are up against an opponent the country will warm to.
As things stand, though, Mr Muller remains anonymous to the general public and he has little time to change that.
This has advantages; seldom regarded as a leader-in-waiting, he has no expectations to live up to.
Also, with National’s dire poll ratings this week, surely, the only way is up for a party which just three months ago was polling strongly enough to potentially unseat the Ardern-led Government.
One of Mr Muller’s lines at his press conference showed where National’s attacks will land in the election campaign.
His reference to a Cabinet with 17 empty seats suggests while Labour is likely to play its trump cards of Ms Ardern and Mr Robertson as often as possible, National will hope to take tricks by tackling Labour’s lesser lights.
Wise heads in Labour will not have been swayed by the seductive prospect offered by polls showing they could elect as many as 79 MPs; they expected an electoral contest before Mr Bridges’ demise and nothing will have changed on that front with Mr Muller’s elevation.
It was also highly significant that, unlike Mr Bridges, Mr Muller refused to take a position on the possibility of working with perennial coalition makers New Zealand First.
Mr Muller has known Mr Peters for a long time; as a Young Nat he invited the then MP for Tauranga along as a guest speaker.
It would come as no surprise if Mr Muller attempted to quietly rekindle that acquaintance sometime soon.
Mr Bridges had a torrid time as National leader.
Quite apart from the challenge of Covid-19, he also had to watch and wait as the White Island eruption and March 15 terror attacks showed off his rival’s best qualities.
There was also the not inconsiderable burden added to his shoulders by former friend and colleague Jami-lee Ross’s attempt to destroy Mr Bridges career.
It may be that, like former Labour leader Andrew Little, Mr Bridges has more to offer as a team member rather than in command, although if he chose to make a clean break from politics that would be understandable.
His deputy, Paula Bennett, was also displaced, a move of significance for the broader National party as she was to direct its election campaign.
Carefully made plans will no doubt now be torn up, with little time for redraughting.
The same can be said for Labour, though, as it now has to take on an opponent it will have not prepared for.
An already intriguing election just took another fascinating turn, and the campaign has not yet begun.