3. Dunne: Unravelling National's hunt for relevance

Despite the enormous temptation, National cannot afford to use the forthcoming interregnum to settle old scores, says Peter Dunne. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Former MP Peter Dunne analyses how National might handle soon-to-be-Prime Minister Winston Peters, and why the former governing party is still struggling for relevance.

Many observers are speculating that the Prime Minister's maternity leave, leaving the country in the hands of her erratic and unreliable Deputy, will be a real test for the Government.

To some extent, that is true, although the provisions of the Cabinet manual spell out very clearly the limitations on the role of acting Prime Minister, even in circumstances where the function is carried out for more than just the usual few days.

However, the Prime Minister's absence will arguably be more of a challenge for the National Party and its leadership.

Even now, National still gives off signs that it is not yet used to the reality that despite being the largest party in Parliament and the constantly preferred option in the opinion polls, it is no longer the Government.

It likes to think it was deviously robbed of power by a motley Labour/New Zealand First/Greens coalition, orchestrated and still dominated by Winston Peters. That may also be the view of the largest chunk of the New Zealand public too, but they have largely moved on from the brooding and are more focused on getting on with life. National should be too.

Despite the enormous temptation, National cannot afford to use the forthcoming interregnum to settle old scores. For a start, if National is to be a serious contender to govern again any time soon, it may have to consider an however unlikely rapprochement with New Zealand First. That bridge may have already been burned beyond salvage, but any attempt to use the next few weeks to inflict utu the way Peters does would most definitely destroy the possibility.

And with the inevitable, albeit facile, goodwill that will accompany the arrival of "the baby", National cannot risk being seen as the party-pooper.

'Let them hang themselves'

So National will have to hold its nerve and leave the job of destroying New Zealand First's credibility to Ministers like Shane Jones and Ron Mark, who have already shown themselves to be eminently capable of that task.

But National's problems run deeper than how to handle the next few weeks. Up against an all-talk, but so far do-nothing, Government, it is finding it very difficult to make headway, because there is little to make headway against, and so, National is perceived as doing nothing.

Moreover, as the methamphetamine debacle shows, when crises do occur, they, because of the current Government's inaction, are more likely to be something to be sheeted home to National's time in office. This makes it doubly difficult for the Opposition to take a strong role criticising essentially its own previous actions.

On the positive side, National has moved on from the English/Joyce era quite seamlessly, and can be reasonably pleased with its showing in the unexpected and unwelcome Northcote by-election. The caucus seems to be getting on with its business, and the new leadership is settling in well. Its problem, though, is that no-one has really noticed, and as yet they do not really care. The Government's many and constant fumbles are making it easier for them, but it is simply too early in the political cycle for even such chronic ineptitude to turn the political tide definitively.

Meanwhile, whatever further stumbles this Government will make, National's most difficult days are ahead of it. Over the next year or so, it will have to turn its mind to candidate selections for the 2020 election.

Doubts about the lists' dregs

There will be the inevitable number of sitting MPs deciding to stand down, and there will also be those who have to be more forcefully persuaded to do so. And all this will have to be handled without offending too many sensitivities on the way, lest there be precipitate and awkward resignations. Already, there are whispers that National is not too keen on any more of it current list MPs leaving before 2020, because of doubts about the next few on the present list.

Two other hurdles remain to be cleared. The first is policy. Put simply, will the compassionate liberal/conservative brand so carefully fostered in the Key/English years be retained, or will it be ditched in favour of a return to right wing populism in an attempt to lure wayward provincial New Zealand First voters back to their rightful home? If the way National has approached the "three strikes" issue, and the increasing prominence of Judith Collins are any guides, this may indeed be National's path, potentially risking the loss of soft, urban voters to Labour, or even the Greens.

National's other hurdle is the lack of an obvious support partner. Of course, National could decide to go for broke, and focus on knocking out both New Zealand First and the Greens, to form a majority Government on its own. This high-risk strategy might work, although it is more probable, given the vagaries of MMP and voters' general reluctance to date to invest in single party majority Governments, that it will not.

And failure would assuredly have disastrous long-term consequences for National. Hence the talk of the need to build a new support partner. Leaving aside (for a future column) what that partner should look like, the immediate question is a practical one - the soon-to-be passed "party hopping" legislation which will prevent National setting up one or more of its sitting MPs to lead such a party.

Given that it is almost impossible to get a new party off the ground without involving sitting MPs (ACT in 1996 is the only exception so far, and even then it was led by a high profile former MP), National faces even higher odds to overcome. The suspicion lingers that this calculation was one of the factors behind New Zealand First's insistence on the return of such draconian legislation, along with the more obvious one of protecting itself from internal fracture like 1998.

Barring an unforeseen drama (always possible given the particular personality involved), the next few weeks are unlikely to see any great or game-changing upheaval. National's challenges remain much bigger than who is the temporary head of Government. Scoring some political points along the way will undoubtedly be good for its morale, but that is all.

In six weeks' time, National will still be the Opposition, and on current form, still struggling for relevance.