The first sign of the change in fortunes for the National Party came in the venue for its two day caucus retreat.

It was a hotel on Tauranga's waterfront that billed itself as 4.5 star. In Government, things are five star.

Like the National Party, it seems the hotel fell just short.

The fleet of Crown cars that used to line up outside to shuttle the ministers to post-caucus meetings was absent. Instead they all piled into humble shuttle vans they had to call themselves when they travelled out to meet the locals.


They gathered for the meeting, leaving their cellphones on a long table outside the meeting room. It is a big caucus - there were 56 MPs and five of those who are next on the list.

There were a lot of cellphones.

When the alarm went off on one it took five minutes for the staffer in charge of the cellphone table to find which one it was.

It was Nikki Kaye's.

The MPs were surprisingly chipper given it was the first long caucus since the election and one of the agenda items was a post mortem of how they ended up in this not quite a 5-star hotel and shuttle vans.

The atmosphere may have been helped by many MPs opting for the "ignorance is bliss" approach to media - some admitted they had sworn off watching the news the week before because "it's all about Jacinda".

Some sought to make a silk purse out of the undoubted sow's ear that is Opposition.

The future is bright, said MP Gerry Brownlee.


National, it seemed, had caught the Relentlessly Positive lurgy from Ardern.

There was a lot of a use of the words "optimistic" and "positive".

Maggie Barry declared they were newly liberated. There were no longer ministers among them driving the agenda, caucus was a more a egalitarian affair.

Even the lowly newbies were allowed to speak.

The chink in discipline that had opened in the lead-up to the retreat did have the result of feeding suspicious glances at each other.

But so ingrained is discipline in National over the last 10 years that it was clamped closed again, at least for the time being. English could have highlighted the reason for it by putting up mugshots of all those Labour leaders over the past nine years - but he didn't need to.

There are reasons beyond the polls why English might decide to stay on. He is fiercely protective of the social investment approach and the work he had hoped to build on as a Prime Minister. Giving up that hope of a legacy will hurt.

And despite calls for "fresh" those National voters who have stuck like barnacles to the party since the election voted for the John Key and then Bill English government.

More importantly, they have stuck to it. They still like the man on the stage rather than those in the wings.

Mark Mitchell perhaps took things a bit too far trying to dampen speculation of leadership rumbling in National when he proclaimed he had a romantic hankering for leader Bill English to rise again in 2020.

The trouble is that describing such a thing as a "romantic" idea equates to it being unrealistic - a fairy tale rather than real life.

Mitchell is one of those MPs named as a potential contender should English go. The question MPs are turning their heads to is whether English is the right person for 2020 and whether any other could do any better.

It's an almost unanswerable question but it seems increasingly likely English will answer it for them. He says he was not asked for a commitment to stay on until 2020 - and, more importantly, he did not give one.

He is already talking about his work bedding National into Opposition. Once he feels that is done, those contenders may get their chance.

Local MP Simon Bridges hosted a barbecue in Tauranga and MPs were encouraged to bring partners.

On the next night they dined with spouses at the venue. The entertainment was skits organised by Paula Bennett for which there were varying levels of enthusiasm. Bennett was very enthusiastic. Others were less so.

Bridges said they should do more of such socialising now the rarefied air of Cabinet had gone. The team that plays together, stays together and all that.

MPs were not on any move over the leadership, though there was some quiet positioning in case it comes up. It almost certainly will before 2020, despite Mitchell's romantic yearnings.

Bridges arrived in jeans but with a shirt and jacket on top, ready for the cameras.

Coleman did not have his Business Time clothes on, he was the most casual of all in a polo shirt.

The conundrum is that the MPs do not necessarily believe any of the other contenders can do better than English.

Now the strategy is to wait and see. Wait to see if a development in a small party such as now leaderless The Opportunities Party might provide a new potential friend.

Wait to see if NZ First falls. Wait to see what English decides to do. Wait to see if the public begins to get bored with the the Jacinda photo ops and baby talk.

Labour too had waited to see if the public would get bored with John Key. They waited and waited and waited through nine years of hotels with fewer than five stars.