This week's ACC email leaks scandal has been picked up by the media and other bloggers alike as the beginnings of a civil war within National. This war could well be dubbed the first phase of the 'War of the National Party Succession'.
Other blog sites, such as The Standard, have done an outstanding job in trying to get to the bottom of what is behind National's sudden descent into near civil war. When I first heard (along with everyone else) about the erroneous emailing of ACC sexual abuse client files, I thought that would be it. There would be red faces all round at ACC, a huge apology to all involved and a renewed dedication by the Corporation to improve its privacy and information handling processes.
But now it has turned out that this was the beginning of what could be a very bloody civil war within National to succeed John Key. The PM has reportedly let it be known that he intends to step down around 2014. Obviously, if The Standard and others are to be believed, then this civil war tends to concentrate a series of distinct camps forming within the National caucas: one centred around Transport Minister (and soon to be mega minister) Steven Joyce (said to be the anointed heir of Key), Bill English and his brat pack (who have been around for the political equivalent of millenia) and the other around Justice and ACC Minister Judith Collins.
I believe that the National leadership battle will really heat up as this term progresses - and it could heat up a lot faster than many expect.
For what it's worth, here's my take on the chances of the main contenders at this stage in the game. I've ranked them according on their ability to succeed Key:
1.) Steven Joyce: I still hold him to be the odds on favourite (as does Ipredict). Key by promoting him to the top five of the Cabinet pecking order and giving him some weighty portfolios in both the previous and present Parliament sent a clear signal that the former National Party chief executive is his preferred successor. Joyce isn't as well known in the public arena as Key, English or some of his other colleagues are but his profile is building. Most New Zealanders got acquainted with Joyce at a serious level when he fronted the Rena disaster while serving as transport minister late last year. This environmental crisis (occurring as it did just weeks out from the election) saw Key placing his trusty lieutenant in charge of operations. On the downside though, he didn't handle the public relations aspect of the Rena disaster as well as he could have, something which might have cost National the possibility of an absolute majority at the election. But the PM still trusts him to take on the new mega Ministry of Businness, Innovation and Employment that is due to open for business in July. Given that many National MPs from the 2008 intake will owe their seats (and positions) to Key, I would expect that loyalty to transfer over to Joyce.
2.) Judith Collins: only one seat lower than Joyce (number five) in the Cabinet pecking order, she has been implicated (irrespective of whom has leaked to whom in the Bronwyn Pullar affair) as a major player in this current ACC scandal. Anyway, Collins is the ACC Minister and has had to answer some tough questions in the House this week from opposition parties on the affair. Where Joyce is from the Key wing of the party, Collins is from the hard right faction of the party. After all, The Standard and some Labour MPs have linked her with Simon Lusk, a man linked to the Don Brash takeover of the ACT Party, and Cameron Slater of Whale Oil blog fame. In a nutshell, much talk has been made this week of the role that Collins allegedly played in this affair in order to hit back at former National Party president (and the person who recruited John Key to Parliament), Michelle Boag. From what I have seen and heard of Collins, she is a real right wing tough nut. As Social Development spokesperson under Don Brash, she made Paula Bennett look like a socialist given her statement made around 2006 that she wanted to see more single parents give up their children for adoption. She is a woman truly in the Thatcherite/Richardsonite take no prisoners mode. And speaking of prisoners, she can at least claim credit for having presided over falling crime figures, something no Labour or National minister has had the ability to crow about for years. She will trade on her reputation as 'Crusher' Collins, a no nonsense leader who even successfully managed to steer a smoking ban inside our prisons without so much as a cell going up in smoke (and much to the surprise of this blogger). To the public, though, she may cut a scarier figure and tend to remind people more of Jenny Shipley and Ruth Richardson. This might turn off centre ground voters who came across to the Nats due to Key's easy going style. Undoubtedly, Collins probably has a 30 percent chance of becoming National leader but it's more likely she will become deputy to Joyce. After the Nats go back into opposition (as will be inevitable at some point), she might be considered the right sort of feisty leader that the party needs to fight a centre-left government. However, whether she would be considered election winning material is something else entirely different.
3.) Bill English: while he's been leader before and is deputy leader now, don't write him off completely. While I wasn't impressed with his post-Christchurch earthquake press conference performances due to his dry presentational skills, he is one of the most intelligent people in the National caucas. I met English briefly in the late 1990s at a student forum and, honestly, I predicted back then that he would be become leader one day. He did and bombed spectacularly. But experience and the need for moderation could count for something if the leadership race gets ugly. He's probably furious at Collins and Key for having seen his old brat pack mate Nick Smith become the accidental casualty of this scandal and will be keeping his powder dry as well. Probably a 10 percent chance of him ever becoming leader but I wouldn't rule it out, especially if the Nats need someone experienced enough to act as a third candidate (so to speak) who could broker between the factions in any post-Key regime.
And the dark horse...
4.) Simon Power: I know he isn't in Parliament anymore but if the skirmishes get really shitty, then he could be another, more powerful and potentially popular alternative leader. I think he could get the call to return if things get absolutely bloody in the battle for the National succession. Even though I'm on the left, I admired Power as a person who looked presentable and was capable of carrying an argument in the House. Besides he is articulate and while he didn't look comfortable fronting all of National's tough line justice rhetoric (in contrast to Collins who does) he still ably pushed through much of the party's justice agenda in its first term. He could be the ideal candidate if the party's corporate donors start fearing a complete meltdown (even though the corporate world's sentimental favourite would be Collins due to her ideological vigour.)
Whatever happens next, it seems that Key letting slip his intentions too early has created some problems for National. It's now up to Key and his colleagues to try and avert World War III within National. And the early signs don't look good as this early phase of the War of the National Succession indicates.
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