National enjoyed stable leadership, with John Key serving just over 10 years, followed by Bill English, serving one year 77 days until he stepped down just months after the 2017 election.
Tauranga MP Simon Bridges was chosen to replace English as National leader in February 2018. He battled poor individual ratings but maintained popularity for National at around 40 per cent in political polls until the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
In the Herald's 2020 Mood of the Boardroom survey, CEOs gave Bridges' leadership of two years 85 days a rating of 2.40/5.
"Bridges was highly ineffectual as a leader and did not engender confidence," says one company director.
A government relations firm boss said that despite Bridges being a good person, he had little personal connection with voters — "but he got National into a superb position before Covid-19".
Bridges chaired the cross-party epidemic response committee during the alert level four lock down, receiving praise for his handling of the daily online forums which covered issues from health, media, tourism and the economy.
But he was also heavily criticised for his decision to commute between Wellington and his home in Tauranga during the lockdown to conduct the committee via Zoom. Bridges said then: "I don't take these things lightly, but I am the leader of the Opposition, I've got constitutional duties, I'm running a committee in extreme circumstances where there is no Parliament.
"I have to do that in the best way possible and it seems to me that does mean doing it in Parliament where I have the resources, where I can do it in a professional way, and I'm available to media."
A Facebook post from Bridges in April also received wide condemnation from the public."The decision for New Zealand to stay locked down in Level 4 shows the Government hasn't done the groundwork required to have us ready," he wrote.
"New Zealand is being held back because the Government has not used this time to ensure best practice of testing and tracing and the availability of PPE hasn't been at the standard it should have been."
Of 29,000 Facebook responses the majority were negative. In retrospect, Bridges' post had merit, but his delivery showed he seriously misread the mood of the nation at that point.
Said a transport CEO: "Bridges was probably an effective leader of the Opposition, but not well liked enough to get elected Prime Minister".
By May a Newshub-Reid Research Poll showed National's support had fallen to 30.6 per cent with Labour drawing ahead on 56.5 per cent. An emergency caucus meeting saw the swift removal of Bridges and deputy Paula Bennett as the little known Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller and former Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye were elected as leader and deputy respectively.
Muller has been a staffer in former Prime Minister Jim Bolger's office. He later worked for Zespri and Fonterra. In a letter to MPs ahead of the caucus vote, Muller said it was "essential" that National win the 2020 election.
"I share the view of a majority of colleagues that this is not possible under the current leadership," he wrote. "I believe I am best placed to earn the trust of New Zealanders by September 19."
But Muller's stint in the top job was short-lived — at 53 days the shortest in modern National Party history. "Unfortunately — a number of misfires with Todd materially challenged through time in the role," says Deloitte CEO Thomas Pippos.
These included criticism of a lack of diversity on his front bench, distractions over his Donald Trump 'Make America Great Again' cap, and the leak of confidential information of Covid-19 patients to media by former National Party president Michelle Boag and National MP Hamish Walker.
A company director said it is difficult to assess Muller because "he was obviously in the middle of a toxic and tumultuous period for the party." Another wrote he "was pushed by inexperienced colleagues and self-serving advisers into a job he wasn't up to and that mistake severely damaged National."
At the time of his surprise resignation he said that the role had taken a heavy toll on him personally and "has become untenable from a health perspective".
"It has become clear to me that I am not the best person to be leader of the Opposition and leader of the New Zealand National Party at this critical time for New Zealand."
CEOs rated his performance at 1.77/5.
His successor, Judith Collins, placed both Muller and Bridges on her frontbench as spokespeople for trade and foreign affairs, respectively.
The head of a fund manager probably best sums up sentiment among respondents: "No point going over old ground. That's in the past now."
With Judith Collins receiving a significantly higher rating compared to both her predecessors for the same question of 3.52/5 and just 19 days until the election, perhaps that is right.
How they rated
Simon Bridges 2.40/5
Todd Muller 1.77/5
Judith Collins 3.52/5
CEOs rated the National's three leaders on a 1-5 scale 1-5 where 1=not impressive and 5 =very impressive.
Top-rankers suffer from a spell of invisibility
CEOs say the majority of National's top 10 need to raise their profile.
"I don't know them," says the CEO of an IT company. "Hardly heard of most of these people," says another. An agricultural boss reckons "many of them are not visible." From a winemaker: "It is not appropriate to comment — I am unfamiliar with their efforts."
For this reason, a high proportion of respondents gave "Unsure" votes to National's highest ranked MPs.
For example, MPs including Shane Reti, Chris Bishop, Louise Upston and Scott Simpson all received "Unsure" responses from over 20 per cent of respondents.
Some of this will likely be due to the fact that the leader inevitably overshadows the rest of the caucus — Judith Collins received the top score with an average rating of 3.55/5.
"She is more decisive and articulate than her two immediate predecessors," says a top lawyer.
"Her leadership qualities were immediately obvious from her first press conference as leader, and from the way in which she ranked her front bench, incorporating both Simon Bridges and Todd Muller," says a director.
Recently appointed health spokesperson Shane Reti has clearly benefited from the ongoing Covid-19 health and border response coverage. Those who know who he is have given him the second highest score of 3.29/5 — almost eclipsing Collins.
Meanwhile National's deputy leader Gerry Brownlee received a score of 2.79/5 — taking a hit due to the comments he made around the Government's Covid-19 response.
In a press conference last month alongside Collins, Brownlee outlined several events and said they were an "interesting series of facts". They included the Government's plea to the public to prepare for a possible outbreak, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's visit to a mask factory, and Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield's public Covid-19 test just hours before announcing the community outbreak in Auckland.
"Gerry Brownlee didn't do himself any favours by coming across as a conspiracy theorist," says the head of a commercial law firm. "There is enough of that sort of nonsense around and an apparent endorsement from the deputy leader of the opposition is unhelpful."
Heading into the 2017 election, Bill English's top 10 combined received an average rating of 3.34/5 in the Mood of the Boardroom survey. This year, the combined average is 2.99/5.
Some of National's most high-profile talent have departed politics this term — including Anne Tolley, Paula Bennett, Nikki Kaye and Amy Adams — and comments from some respondents suggest that this may have contributed to to the lower score for the top 10 this time around. "This weakened team hardly fills me with confidence," says a fund manager. "I see no depth in this party and no ability to sing from the same song sheet. I have no idea what they stand for, other than negativity and dirty politics," says an IT CEO.
"There are pockets of ability and lots of some who haven't quite worked out where they are going at the moment," says a lobbyist. "They are a party in transition who — like Labour numerous times in the Key era — panicked over leadership when confronted with a PM with charisma and talent."
Suggests one professional director: "We need to see the energetic young Nats coming through — Nicola Willis, etc."