Speculation about the National caucus replacing Paula Bennett as deputy leader has revealed deeper discontent within the caucus about finance spokesman Steven Joyce, the Herald has learned.

Bill English is as safe as leader now as he was straight after the September election, in which National gained 44.4 per cent of the vote after a year as Prime Minister.

Soundings taken this morning confirm discontent with Paula Bennett as deputy, although no serious moves are afoot to challenge her at next week's caucus retreat in Tauranga.

She is probably the most convenient "whipping boy" for the frustration of MPs being relegated to Opposition.


But the more widespread dissatisfaction is with former Finance Minister and long-serving campaign chairman Joyce.

Some MPs hoped Bennett and Joyce would step down, to provide opportunities for a new generation of leadership.

It could also cement in English as more than a caretaker leader.

There are no signs that they either Bennett or Joyce going to step down voluntarily. And there are no signs that English will put the heat on them to go.

But in the event of a vacancy in the finance role, Amy Adams or Simon Bridges would be likely contenders.

If Bennett were to step down as deputy, the vacancy would be contested by those who would see themselves as possible successors to English: Bridges, Adams and Judith Collins.

Nikki Kaye is touted by some commentators as a possible leader with the best set of credentials to match Jacinda Ardern - an intelligent, attractive young woman.

But she has virtually no supporters within the caucus to be in serious contention.


If the caucus was looking for someone expendable – to be the Phil Goff to John Key - the caucus might risk going with Collins.

Todd Muller, the MP for Bay of Plenty, is also a possible future leader, but he is only in his second term and there is no reason yet to suppose he would leapfrog Bridges or Adams.

The leadership speculation has come on a bad day for English, who is set to deliver a state of the nation speech, his first big event this year.

"BBQ" became code for a coup after Goff hosted a BBQ for colleagues during a period of discontent in Labour in the 1990s.

Ironically, there is a BBQ at Simon Bridges place next week. He is not expected to be fanning the flames.