The cohesive National Party caucus that John Key has led for 10 years is about to start fraying as members grapple with how to replace him as Prime Minister.

Key's endorsement of Finance Minister Bill English has not been met with universal approval by MPs still reeling from the news that their No1 asset is leaving politics.

The caucus will meet at Parliament today to discuss the selection process.

Key's dream-team for the succession is known to be English as Prime Minister, Paula Bennett as Deputy Prime Minister and Steven Joyce as Finance Minister.


That is the likely outcome because Key's influence remains huge.

But sources spoken to by the Herald suggest a pocket of discontent with some not wanting the baton passed without a contest next Monday, even with the knowledge English will be the likely successor.

There is speculation that Health Minister Jonathan Coleman and Justice Minister Amy Adams are considering a run, possibly on a new generation ticket.

Judith Collins, too, is not ruling out a bid and Paula Bennett has made no decisions.

Asked if she was standing, Bennett said she was "still in a stage of denial and shock and will turn my mind to that in the next 24 hours".

Coleman would not comment and Adams did not return calls yesterday.

Any challenge, however, might not be made with the expectation of winning but as a rehearsal for a possible new leadership contest in a year's time if National does not win a fourth term. Any bid by Judith Collins could be seen as positioning for a possible run next year or as a potential deputy to English.

Key's preference will be for an uncontested transition, to reinforce unity and stability of government.


English himself said National needed only a week and did not have the process of a prolonged "brawl" by which Labour now elected its leader.

The caucus will determine the process tomorrow for a vote at a special caucus next Monday.

What is not clear is how the deputy will be chosen although, by convention, that person needs to be the choice of the leader.

English is reserving his public declaration until he knows he can win. Losing would not only be humiliating, it could force his resignation as Finance Minister.

In a press conference yesterday, he repeatedly stressed the "cohesion" of the National caucus.

"He [Key] leaves behind a cohesive team with plenty of talent and energy to take New Zealand forward," he said.

English was first elected to Parliament in 1990. After a disastrous stint as National leader in Opposition, in which the party polled just 20.93 per cent of the vote, he redeemed himself in his role as Finance Minister.

He has also led Government reform in the way it determines social spending, under the aegis of the "social investment approach".

Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Illustration / Rod Emmerson

English said he had learned a lot from his loss and from Key's leadership.

"You learn more from losing than you do from winning and in the last 10 years I've had a masterclass every day from John Key about how to do politics."

Key's endorsement of English indirectly acknowledged his failure as a party leader previously.

"Bill has, I believe, grown a great deal since he was last party leader," he said.

Fifteen years on he has more experience and the party and political cycles are quite different.

"I believe that National, under Bill's leadership, would win the election in 2017."

The main players

Bill English

Bill English. Photo / Michael Craig
Bill English. Photo / Michael Craig

Will seek leadership with the blessing of John Key but with the curse of his former leadership not completely vanquished. Has redeemed his reputation as a highly competent Finance Minister and is the most trusted alternative.

First elected 1990. Wellington-based list MP.

Paula Bennett

Paula Bennett. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Paula Bennett. Photo / Mark Mitchell

National's most senior woman, and has been groomed by Key and English for higher things. Probably English's deputy but would probably run herself in the unlikely event of English not running.

First elected 2005. Upper Harbour MP.

Steven Joyce

Stephen Joyce. Photo / John Borren
Stephen Joyce. Photo / John Borren

No interest in becoming Prime Minister but the obvious choice for Finance Minister under English.

First elected 2008. Auckland-based list MP.

Jonathan Coleman

Jonathan Coleman. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Jonathan Coleman. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Highly combative North Shore-based Health Minister has leadership ambitions. Could team up with Amy Adams from Canterbury for a run, but may just be a rehearsal for next time.

First elected 2005. North Shore MP.

Amy Adams

Amy Adams. Photo / Lynda Feringa
Amy Adams. Photo / Lynda Feringa

Competent and dynamic minister who could team up with Jonathan Coleman as part of a new generation ticket that ticks all the boxes for balance but would be a huge gamble.

First elected 2008. Selwyn MP.

Judith Collins

Judith Collins. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Judith Collins. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Has largely behaved herself since her reinstatement to Cabinet a year ago but has never quite lost her maverick streak. No chance of becoming leader but could make a run to improve chances of better portfolios or getting deputy post.

First elected 2002. Papakura MP.