Judith Collins' non-existent message discipline, predilection for personal attacks, lack of media nous and tendency to see herself as a victim can't be helping her party. But National MPs are deluded if they think getting rid of her would make much difference.
Their problems go much deeper.
Through the long John Key summer, National was like Aesop's grasshopper, singing in the sun but failing to prepare for winter.
Say what you like about Bill English and Michelle Boag in 2002 and Don Brash and Judy Kirk in 2005, they aggressively searched for new talent. So too Robert Muldoon and Sue Wood in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Selections were always made by local party activists, who took that role extremely seriously. The system brought in stars, flops and some disasters. But it allowed National to constantly reinvent itself as economic conditions, social attitudes, centre-right ideologies and the practical political environment changed.
In contrast, Key and Peter Goodfellow were more interested in perceived risks to the status quo. New party rules allowed the establishment to dominate ever-more candidate selections.
Preference went to those with backgrounds as parliamentary staffers or in PR. Prospective candidates willing to endure Kirk's candidate college were advantaged by being assumed to have been fully vetted when they clearly were not. Even early on, party officials observed big numbers from a handful of non-mainstream churches applying to join the college.
The obsession with risk minimisation has not succeeded even by its own measure, as the Hamish Walker, Andrew Falloon and Jake Bezzant scandals attest. But bad behaviour is not uncommon among politicians. What is new is the narrowness of National's MPs.
Too many lack experience in what the party calls "the real world," whether farming, business or community organisations. There are no thought leaders like Ralph Hanan, Jack Marshall, Jim McLay, Simon Upton, Ruth Richardson, Doug Graham or Chris Finlayson — even if Simon Bridges tried with his recent book. MPs have not learned economics or social policy through practice or theory. They generally have little interest in people or ideas.
Consequently, the caucus lacks connectedness not just with mainstream New Zealanders but with senior leaders in the private, public and NGO sectors, peak organisations and centre-right think tanks in New Zealand or abroad.
Having won their seats through patronage rather than an old-fashioned local scrap, many MPs exhibit a strange sense of superiority. Arrogance about their own judgment and prejudices makes them mostly uninterested in listening to anyone, whether party members, constituents, business and community leaders, or even pollsters and staff.
What listening goes on is mainly performative or, at best, about finding an angle for a zinger. They find engaging with the concerns of mainstream New Zealanders or reading the latest research relevant to their policy area much less interesting than talking about themselves and their latest political manoeuvre. Yet they lack courage, either to lead a public debate towards a desired destination or in calling out poor behaviour by their leaders.
Most sat idly by as Collins was viciously attacked in caucus by Bridges' loyalists and as Nick Smith, Todd Muller and Chris Bishop were publicly humiliated by Collins.
There are no serious discussions about the future direction of New Zealand or even their own party, either because they lack the life experience or intellectual equipment to participate, or because their work environment is so toxic. Voters sense this.
In markets, customers are always right and, in democracies, the voters. The headline poll numbers released this week by the Taxpayers' Union and those leaked by Talbot Mills' clients are horrifying for National, but the fine-print is worse.
Last night's email to the Taxpayers' Union's major donors shows National has the unprompted support of just 19 per cent of voters, compared with 39 per cent for Labour.
When voters are prompted further and undecideds removed, National rises just two points to 21 per cent, while Labour leaps up seven to 46 per cent.
Among women, National is supported by just 16 per cent, with 57 per cent backing Labour.
The polling was carried out by Curia owned by National's long-term pollster David Farrar, who Key famously declared "the best pollster in New Zealand".
Most disastrous, Curia has National on just 15 per cent support among voters under 40, in fourth place behind Labour, Act and the Greens, even after prompting. Among National voters of all ages, Seymour is preferred Prime Minister by 17 per cent, with Collins backed by just 14 per cent of her own party's supporters. Her net favourable rating across all voters is -40 per cent.
Yet there is no evidence anyone else would do better. Chris Luxon is favoured by 11 per cent of National voters but his net favourable rating across all voters is -20 per cent.
Jacinda Ardern is the preferred Prime Minister of 7 per cent of National voters, more than double the 3 per cent of National voters who back Bridges. His net favourable rating is a shocking -33 per cent, albeit an improvement from when he was rolled as leader.
National's poll ratings are not as bad according to Talbot Mills, which is strongly associated with Labour. It has National as high as 26 per cent among all voters, with Collins on 13 per cent as preferred Prime Minister, just below Seymour on 14 per cent. No other National MP has any material support.
But Talbot Mills shows how strongly voters back Ardern on Covid and that she has a path towards normality. Two-thirds of voters back her overall response, 72 per cent the testing process and 84 per cent the vaccination process. A slim majority thinks she made a mistake opening the Australasian travel bubble, but that was pushed for by National and the business community.
Talbot Mills found significant concern among voters about the economy and for their and their family's health and job prospects. They think Covid is still to get worse. But over two thirds say things in New Zealand are generally heading in the right direction. A record 89 per cent has been or intends to be vaccinated, with the hard core of anti-vaxxer freeloaders down to just 5 per cent. If these vaccination rates play out on the ground, 90 per cent of us would be happy for border restrictions to be lifted.
That would mean New Zealanders living in a very different world this time next year, 12 months before the election. National has plenty of time for a leadership change. It needs to find the right leader for 2023, not again change captains at the end of a major lockdown — especially with the only plausible candidate still so disliked.
Delaying a change for at least a year gives Collins, Luxon and Bridges time to prove they are the candidate for 2023, and for Bishop, Nicola Willis, Erica Stanford and perhaps others to raise their profiles and make a case why they have the best chance of beating Ardern.
In the meantime, National MPs should get over themselves, accept they are all failing, do some listening and — who knows — even start some genuine policy work.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.