Fran O'Sullivan: Hide's antics leave spot in Epsom wide open

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Rodney Hide and John Boscawen will be in the background at the party conference. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Rodney Hide and John Boscawen will be in the background at the party conference. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Rodney Hide - dubbed 'the little corporal' by his growing number of opponents within right wing politics - would definitely meet his political Waterloo if a credible candidate stood against him for the Epsom seat at the November elections.

That's the clear takeout from secret polling done by the potential backers of a new "alternative support party".

The polling shows that former Auckland City Council mayor John Banks would easily trounce Hide. So, too would other alternative candidates such as former National Party leader Don Brash, and, Colin Craig, the third placed candidate in the recent Auckland mayoral race.

And to really rub salt into this purulent wound, let's toss in Hide's bete noire Winston Peters. According to the indicative polls conducted by South Island-based Research First, even the NZ First leader is likely to do down better with Epsom voters than their canary coated MP.

That is a factor which might persuade Peters to contest the seat to try to bring Act down in revenge for the merciless campaign that Hide waged against him just before the 2008 election.

It's no accident that these polls were leaked to the Herald on the eve of Act's annual conference at an Auckland motel today.

Hide's antics have damaged the party's brand. Act's financial support has diminished.

There is now an air of desperation that a party founded on high principles to champion economic reform ended up the refuge for political scoundrels like David Garrett. Membership has diminished. Founder Sir Roger Douglas - no fan of Hide's leadership - has had enough and is leaving Parliament.

In the circumstances, Hide should do the decent thing and clear the way for a credible candidate to stand in Epsom for Act. But my sources suggest that Hide's colossal ego is such that he is more likely to want to do down in a heap than put Act first.

Banks would stand "in a heartbeat" if Act asked him to do so, says one well-placed intermediary.

Brash - who had gone to cover in Hawkes Bay - was staying clear of the speculation ahead of his own speech to the conference today. But he's recently been pressured by a number of players - including former National finance minister Ruth Richardson - to re-enter the political fray. He's very tempted (not that he would need much seduction) as he believes the Government should be doing much more to get the economy on the right track.

The big question facing Banks, Brash, their allies and backers is whether they can reach an accommodation with Act or whether they should go ahead with the new party. Act is an established - if damaged brand.

It has a constitution and a membership base; not all its financial backers have deserted it.

A new alternative support party would start with a clear slate and good financial backing. But while the leaders would bring their own cachet, the party itself might not have sufficient time to get its brand established sufficiently ahead of the election to drive up list votes.

When Labour first got wind that Epsom voters were being polled over whether they should vote for Hide or Banks, Banks denied any knowledge of the phone poll.

In fact, it was Craig who commissioned the December polling. Respondents who identified themselves as centre-right or swing voters were asked if they were in favour of a new partner for John Key in place of Act, "given Act's decline in popularity and internal problems". The upshot was that just over 50 per cent either agreed or strongly agreed with the need for a new partner. About 22 per cent were in the disagree or disagree strongly camp.

Another question asking all poll respondents to rank their preferred leader for a new party in place of Act, put Banks at the top with 37 per cent. Craig had 27 per cent, Brash 21 per cent, Peters 16 per cent and Hide was on 14 per cent,

Impeccable sources say Act's longtime money men are aware of the poll findings.

While London-based Alan Gibbs is still committed to Act, many of the "globalists" (predominantly former Aucklanders who have long decamped) aren't so willing to open their wallets for Act's 2011 campaign. They are said to be dismayed that Act's overall ratings have slipped to around 1.3 per cent (latest TVNZ poll) and 0.6 per cent (TV3) and do not want to stump up simply to put "Rodney back in Parliament on his own".

Senior National Party officials are deeply concerned at Hide's loss of support within the posh electorate. It's obvious from their own polling and feedback that many Epsom voters do not want to give their "strategic" vote to Act's candidate if that means that they have to suffer another three years of rightwing antics. They are concerned that National voters may "disobey" Key if he tells them it's their duty to vote for Hide so Key can count on a couple of extra votes on the right.

Influential right-wingers are openly saying it would it great if someone could tee up a job for Hide offshore. One suggested Hide's long-time sponsor Gibbs could offer him new employment in Britain. (Hide has worked as an advisor for Gibbs in the past). Another tongue-in cheek suggestion is that Key should offer Hide a quasi diplomatic role.

When the party faithful gather this weekend it is not Hide and his colleagues such as John Boscawen who will be taking the limelight but Brash, Police Minister Judith Collins and broadcaster Willie Jackson.

Act's faithful should take on board the fact that Research First's most recent polls in late February still have Banks as the preferred right-of-centre candidate in Epsom for a party that would aim to be a coalition partner for National.

Hide is in no position to claim that Act's future depends on him. While he holds Epsom, it is his leadership that has reduced the party's status at national and local level,.

He has reinvented himself before. He's been an oil rigger and university lecturer. He lost weight on Dancing with the Stars and discovered sex. He now has a new wife and family.

He successfully championed the merger of Auckland's local authorities to be a Super City.

Time to move on and let someone else write Act's new chapter. Or ultimately see it taken out by the launch of a new party.

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

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