Odds favour English in race to be next PM

9:02 pm on 7 December 2016

Power Play - The race for the National Party leadership is moving at breakneck speed as MPs jostle for position ahead of Monday's special caucus vote.

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Clockwise from top left: Judith Collins, John Key, Jonathan Coleman, Paula Bennett, Bill English and Simon Bridges. Photo: RNZ

The resignation of John Key has plunged the 59-member caucus into a contest that has pitted the older hands in the parliamentary wing against the new.

The long-serving deputy and Finance Minister, Bill English, is contesting the leadership against Police Minister Judith Collins and Health Minister Jonathan Coleman.

Mr English has to be seen as the favourite at this point. More and more MPs have declared their support for him, and sources say he now has a majority.

Not all of the votes are nailed down, however, and Dr Coleman is also said to have support, particularly among backbenchers.

RNZ understands support for Ms Collins is more limited.

But Mr English will have to promote himself as a leader for the future, rather than point out his fondness for intricate policy detail, if he is to excite not only his caucus but the electorate.

He has come a long way since leading National to a defeat in 2002, establishing himself as a loyal and effective deputy to Mr Key and someone who now wants to take the reins himself.

While he has broad respect across the caucus, newer MPs are getting impatient and eying the opportunity to wield some influence.

Backbenchers rarely have the chance to have as much say through their vote as the most senior Cabinet minister.

And that is where his rival Ms Collins, campaigning on the sheer force of her personality, is looking for support.

With a sweet smile (like a lioness eyeing up a gazelle) she told reporters the backbench "vastly" outnumbered the Cabinet.

"And I think for most people on the backbench this is the very first time involved in a leadership contest, and many of them are very excited by it."

The third contender, Dr Coleman, claims he is the "change candidate" - a leader who will challenge the National Party status quo and bring through new talent.

He is a bolter and a name that has not often come up during musings of possible replacements for Mr Key.

Dr Coleman is smart and affable, and has also held the defence portfolio.

Having practised as a GP both here and overseas, Dr Coleman says he knows what's going in the community.

His kids go to public schools, he points out repeatedly, and smarts at the suggestion his holiday home in Omaha Beach means he is out of touch with the worries of the common man or woman.

If he loses the contest to Mr English however, Dr Coleman has given Labour a big stick for election year by declaring health and education need more money and should be more of a priority than tax cuts.

Bill English

Mr English leaves a news conference following Mr Key's resignation. Photo: AFP

Ms Collins is also questioning the merit of a broad package of tax cuts over other spending.

She has also confirmed she would not change the superannuation age.

However, early indications are that she lacks enough support among the caucus, and this is shaping up as a two-horse race.

The deputy leader position

Another two-horse race - at this stage - is for the position of deputy.

The only obvious outlier is Amy Adams; a serious and competent minister who has yet to rule herself out for the deputy position.

Paula Bennett has been holding her counsel but has now come out and declared her bid for the number two position.

She is backing Mr English and believes they would make a good pair: a "Southland farmer" and an "Auckland city girl".

Mrs Bennett is a scrapper but has made an obvious effort to be taken seriously as leadership material, taking on heftier portfolios in past years and trying to avoid political dogfights.

Her Cabinet colleague Simon Bridges is also presenting himself as a potential deputy to Mr English, and a bridge between the generations.

But how in touch is he with the Gen X he claims to represent?

He voted against marriage equality, which is a stance he says he may be willing to reconsider.

And when asked about raising the age of entitlement for superannuation, Mr Bridges said that was ultimately a matter for the caucus.

Now there is a substantial list of contenders, the phones will be running hot - this is a very short timeframe for a leadership contest.

"Rejuvenation" has been a word thrown around a lot this week; another buzz word for National MPs has been "stability".

Even those who have not been in Parliament that long - in fact about two thirds of the caucus have never been involved in a leadership contest - they all are aware of the destruction instability and disunity can wreak on a political party.

The traditional political joke about deals plotted over the summer BBQ have unexpectedly come true for the National Party this week.

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