National leader Bill English has brushed off suggestions his job may be in peril, saying he has more support than ever and dismissing speculation about his and deputy Paula Bennett's positions as "a bit of gossip".
Leadership speculation erupted in earnest on Wednesday morning for the first time since the election, with suggestions that National MPs were "doing the numbers" for potential alternative leaders ahead of a caucus meeting next week.
While English himself was not believed to be in any immediate peril, there was suggestions Bennett was in a far more vulnerable position.
Speaking to media after his State of the Nation address - a speech overshadowed, perhaps deliberately, by the leadership rumours - English said he was confident he still held the support of his MPs and the wider party.
"I’ve been involved in this caucus for a while and leader since late  and I have to say I’ve enjoyed more support in the caucus and the party membership and our supporters than ever."
Flanked by several of his MPs, English said it was natural for there to be some internal talk about who might take over if he was to stand down.
"I’d be surprised if there’s any political caucus where there isn’t sometimes some talk about who’s next or who’s third in line or who’s fourth in line - I mean, these are ambitious people who want to change the way the world works and see politics as a way of doing that."
However, it was "ridiculous" to conflate that with any serious threat to his leadership, he said. English also downplayed the timing of the leaks on the morning of his speech setting out National's 2018 agenda, saying: "I wouldn’t over-read it - we’re getting on with the job, we’re not going to be derailed by a bit of gossip."
English said the leadership was unlikely to be discussed at a two-day caucus meeting in Tauranga next week, despite the rumours.
"We can talk about the leadership any time we like, but in the end it’s about numbers and we’ve got some pretty good numbers - 44 per cent of the public voted for us in the election, we’ve got 56 seats in the Parliament, we remain larger than Labour and New Zealand First put together and we have every intention of maintaining those numbers."
Amy Adams - among those considered to be a possible replacement for English or Bennett - said she supported the current leadership team and had "absolutely zero interest" in any change.
Respect for English within caucus
Any move against English in the near future would be surprising, given National is continuing to poll highly.
Several sources spoken to by Newsroom suggested some of the speculation was overblown, with no strong appetite for a change of leader in the coming months.
One source said there was still a high level of respect for English within the party, and he would be given the space to decide what he wanted to do.
Another said there were many in the party who were keen for him to hold the leadership through to the 2020 election, if that was what he wanted.
However, there appears to be a feeling that Bennett's position is much less secure than English's, with some media reporting she may be forced out of the deputy role.
She was seen as a poor performer during the campaign, and few within National now see her as the natural successor to English, despite his decision to support her elevation to the deputy's role last December.
She returned to yesterday's National caucus meeting in Parliament in a bright and breezy fashion after her gastric bypass, but may find herself under the pump at a two-day caucus meeting in Tauranga next week.
The timing of those supposedly agitating for a leadership change is likely to rankle with the party’s senior leadership.
The media stories have come on the morning of English’s State of the Nation speech in Wellington, providing an unwelcome distraction as he tries to set out National’s vision for its year ahead.