The origins of the catastrophe to befall National tomorrow night lie in its attitude towards its 2017 ejection from power. Similar denial is already apparent towards tomorrow's disaster, creating the conditions for another calamity in 2023.
National didn't think the 2017 result was fair. It made up a new "convention" that the party with the most votes should form a government. Despite the leaking of his superannuation details and the very fact of negotiations between NZ First and both main parties, National sulked that it was betrayed when Winston Peters chose Labour.
According to NZ First insiders, Peters was unimpressed by Bill English and Steven Joyce using the coalition negotiations to tutor him on policy. In contrast, Labour gave him what he wanted, even forgetting to put its own priorities into the Coalition Agreement.
Just as dismissively, National regarded Jacinda Ardern as competent only to mouth slogans like "Let's Do This". It need only wait and the public would soon regret their love affair with the young leader and restore National to its rightful throne.
Something like this was Joyce's pitch to MPs in his 2018 leadership bid. In ordinary times, he may well have been right. Had it not been for the Christchurch terrorist attack and Covid-19, Ardern's failure in every area of policy would have been the main theme of the election campaign.
But Christchurch and Covid did happen, and the world will remain in turmoil for some years. Ardern has proven herself globally unparalleled at providing comfort, a sense of national unity and even some direction amidst crisis. This should not be scoffed at.
The comparisons will enrage everyone across the political spectrum, but Churchill did not personally plan the Battle of Britain or D-Day landings, nor Reagan personally design his economic strategy or military build-up. It irritates partisan opponents, but national leadership can be largely about words, hugs and personal connection. The citizens of other democracies are not wrong to wish for a leader with Ardern's communications talent.
Nevertheless, convinced Ardern would be a one-term prime minister before National's inevitable return, National MPs resolved to do as little work and thinking as possible. Under Simon Bridges, National claimed it would be a "serious policy unit of almost think-tank proportions" but its actual output was a series of fairly pedestrian discussion documents that mainly summarised the party's record under Key and promised a return to it. The big idea was the "social investment approach" English had ruminated over for years.
Meanwhile, Bridges' relationship with the public collapsed. His low preferred prime minister ratings can be excused as the consequence, in a zero-sum game, of Ardern's extraordinary popularity. But net approval ratings can't be, and his were worse than any previously seen in New Zealand or by any senior political figure in the English-speaking world.
The public had grown tired of Bridges' sniping at the government, in contrast to Ardern's sunny ways. Driven by strategist Todd McClay, Bridges chased whatever negative issues came along, inevitably becoming seen as mean-spirited and nasty. He reached the point of no return where the public resolved to take the opposite view of whatever he was saying. No amount of smiley Facebook ads can change that.
Facing a debacle in the election campaign worse than Judith Collins has delivered with far superior approval ratings, National had no choice but to get rid of him.
Still, unless a party's MPs can collectively express why they are in politics, there is little party officials or advertising gurus can do for them.
Since the 2017 defeat, there has been no thrashing out of the party's future direction like at the famous caucus retreats in the late 1980s in Queenstown and Waipuna, steering National away from Muldoonery to orthodox economics. Helen Clark similarly reinvented her party in the 1990s, separating Labour's brand from Rogernomics towards Scandinavian social democracy.
Nor did National even break with the past the way Key did in his speeches immediately after becoming leader in 2006. No National MPs spent time in North America or Europe engaging with the world's leading free-market economists or conservative political theorists to bring home the latest emerging ideas. None of this was deemed necessary, so convinced was National the public really wanted it back.
When Todd Muller replaced Bridges, there was little substantial policy, no benchmark polling, no campaign themes, no campaign grid and the private track polls were worse than any in the public domain.
Bridges' loyalists dispute this, saying the work was done but just not shared with the new team or, it seems, permanent party officials. If true, that is even worse.
Muller's deteriorating mental health meant little was achieved under his brief leadership and Collins was left to pick up the pieces in her own unconventional way. She has done as well as anyone could have.
But, already, National MPs are telling themselves they have been cheated again. Had Bridges not been rolled, the May polls and approval ratings would have been mere aberrations. The public would have seen through Ardern by now, voted reluctantly for Bridges and the Key-English era would be restored. Looking ahead, they say, if the party just returns to the status quo ante, National already has 2023 in the bag.
This view will likely be the majority view of National MPs elected tomorrow. Among them is a growing faction of evangelical Christians, who are motivated less by economic policy than the American culture wars, and who have been dubbed the Taliban by more mainstream party members.
If so, history will repeat itself over the next three years. National MPs will refuse to accept the public's verdict, and decline to engage with new ideas or even contemporary New Zealand attitudes. They will resolve again to sit back smugly and wait for Ardern to fail, this time by her suddenly charting an unpopular far-left course.
In fact, despite her "Let's Keep Moving" slogan, Ardern's campaign pitch is that she will do nothing to upset the median voter. As she begins her 2023 re-election campaign this Sunday, she will again hold the centre at all costs. Her left-wing supporters will be appalled. And National will again be trounced in 2023.
• Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant, whose clients have included the National and Act parties. These views are his own