By AUDREY YOUNG political reporter

Infighting continues to rage in the National Party as leader Bill English signals upheavals ahead following a devastating election result - "the worst day of my political life".

National's fortunes dived from 39 MPs to just 27. Of those, 21 are electorate MPs and six list MPs. And in 16 of the 21 electorates it won, Labour polled higher than National in the party vote.

When the caucus convenes at Parliament tomorrow, a bulk-order of 16 silver trays will be presented to outgoing MPs: six retiring and 10 defeated: Gavan Herlihy (Otago), Tony Steel (Hamilton East), and list MPs Bob Simcock, Alec Neill, Belinda Vernon, Anne Tolley, Eric Roy, Arthur Anae, Marie Hasler and Annabel Young.


Warfare between party president Michelle Boag and her detractors is still festering with her claiming that their disunity contributed to the result and that they are happy with it.

"I think it might be called very, very, very sour grapes," she said.

"These are very small numbers of people who don't like a democratic decision that went against them and have undermined the party's prospects consistently."

She said former president John Slater wished Labour president Mike Williams luck on Saturday.

Mr Williams said, however, the reason Mr Slater had telephoned was to warn him that Labour election material was arriving in Pakuranga on election day, which is contrary to the Electoral Act.

The wishes of luck at the end of the call were mutual - though he found the friendly warning unusual from an opposition party.

Mr Slater's greatest caucus supporter, Pakuranga MP Maurice Williamson, called for Michelle Boag's head.

"A resignation from her would lance a very big boil and let us get on with the job of what we've got to do," he said.

"There were other factors involved with National's performance but they are trivial compared with Michelle Boag."

The main problem was that she wanted to be the "big issue", but she "never should be. People should not even really know who [the president] is."

But southern regional chairwoman Ailsa Smail told the Herald: "Williamson's the boil that needs lancing, not Michelle.

"It's unfair to blame Michelle Boag. Michelle has worked particularly hard. She's a great leader. She leads by example."

Michelle Boag would not rule resignation in - or out.

Asked if she felt responsible she said: "Of course I feel accountable. I clearly have to share some of the responsibility. There are many other factors that went into this defeat." Her work and that of the campaign strategy committee will be subject to an independent review. All she would say was that it was not a job for Sir Thomas Eichelbaum (author of the Rugby World Cup report).

No one person was in charge of the campaign, which in itself has been a source of dissatisfaction. It was the work of a committee: Mr English, Michelle Boag, director-general Allan Johnston, deputy leader Roger Sowry, MPs Murray McCully and Simon Power, as well as Mr English's advisers Tim Grafton and Sue Foley.

Following caucus rules after an election defeat, Mr English's leadership will be put to the test tomorrow, but he is expected to be overwhelmingly confirmed.

The future of Mr Sowry as deputy is less secure, though a move against him is not likely to be immediate.

Annabel Young expressed concerns that many in the party are voicing.

"I don't think we had a campaign. I don't think we had a strategy.

"The only person with any campaign experience on the campaign committee was Murray McCully."

Mr English was in a brighter mood yesterday to begin what he called "the permanent campaign" than the despair he succumbed to on Saturday night.

After a series of media interviews following his concession speech, he broke down in tears and was taken by staff to a more private room to be consoled by his wife, Mary.

Mr English signalled major changes ahead. "There will be a substantial reshuffle. I'll be looking at that over the next couple of weeks."

The test will be how bold he is with his front bench and how his old friends and fellow members of the so-called brat pack fare: Mr Sowry, Tony Ryall and Nick Smith.

* Two Auckland political scientists agreed National failed to distinguish its policies from that of Labour - but they were still surprised by the size of National's thumping.

Auckland University's Dr Raymond Miller said strong third party support such as the "Peter Dunne phenomenon" had stripped support from National.

But one of the main reasons was that Labour was basking in a strong economy and a leader who was in her prime.

Dr Miller said Labour had purged itself of Rogernomics, but National had struggled to distance itself from its own perceived failings.

"You have to decide what you stand for, and I feel Bill English was looking to policies they had tried in the 1990s. It was as though they hadn't repositioned themselves," Dr Miller said.

Having Don Brash in the party did not help that - voters may have seen him as being a throwback to radical economics.

The Auckland University deputy head of politics, Dr Joe Atkinson, said the party's advertising was "appalling" and its opening moves "amateurish".

Dr Atkinson said Mr English improved during the campaign, but was yet to match Helen Clark.

"Bill English is a bit of a waffler, a sloganeer - up against Helen Clark with her magisterial grasp of policy detail."

Both political scientists said Michelle Boag would cop much of the blame for the defeat - whether justified or not.

National leaders had to draft strong policies that were different to Labour's if the party was to recover.

Former National leaders had little to say about the defeat yesterday.

- additional reporting: Dita De Boni and Scott MacLeod

Election links: