The National Party's newly crowned leader Todd Muller has started off by saying he was "incredibly upbeat" about his chances in the next election – and has left a door open to reverse the decision not to engage with NZ First after the next election.
After successfully rolling Simon Bridges in a caucus Muller will now take on the task of trying to reclaim the ground National has lost in the polls over the Covid-19 crisis with just four months until the election.
Muller was elected leader after a bitter showdown with Simon Bridges, and Nikki Kaye was elected deputy to replace Paula Bennett.
The past three months have seen Labour and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern soar up to record levels of popularity in two polls while National's vote was decimated to around 30 per cent.
Muller acknowledged the challenge ahead but said the polling was clearly related to the Covid-19 crisis and the Government's "impressive" handling of the health response to that.
In an apparent reference to Bridges' leadership, Muller said he would talk about "what was right for families, not what was wrong about the Government."
However, he went on to chronicle Labour's failings, saying they had failed to deliver on almost every measure they had put up and did not have the capacity to handle the economic crisis that lay ahead.
He was "incredibly upbeat" about National's chances, saying Ardern was "an impressive communicator."
"However, if you look behind her it falls away very quickly. There are two or three people who are heavy lifters in that Cabinet and there are 17 empty chairs."
There were no details of the policies Muller might look to change, and Muller said he would now take some time to decide what reshuffle was needed and which policies might get changed.
And while the caucus decision in February to rule out any post-election Government with NZ First still stood, Muller did not rule out having a second look at it.
However, first Muller will have to try to repair the rifts in his own caucus that the turbulent leadership contest has left, and any damage it has done to the party among the public.
Bridges' supporters were smarting after Bridges' lost the vote yesterday, some saying the way Muller and his supporters treated Bridges in the lead up to that challenge was disrespectful and that Muller and his supporters had been undermining Bridges for a long time.
Muller was quick to deliver the first olive branch to the Bridges' team, confirming Paul Goldsmith will remain in the finance portfolio – a critical role especially in an election year.
In something of an understatement, Muller described the leadership ructions as "a period of reflection" for the party, and likened it to a family which sometimes squabbled.
Bridges and Bennett could be critical in trying to restore unity to the caucus.
Muller said Bridges would get a senior role if he decided to stay on in Parliament – but did not say if it would be a front bench role.
Bridges himself stepped out of the role on a gracious note, saying it had been "a heck of a ride" and he would take some time to consider his own political future rather than make a hasty decision.
He said he had no regrets, and it had always been a privilege to be the Leader of the Opposition, despite the highs and lows of his time in the job.
His deputy Paula Bennett also lost her job to Nikki Kaye – and may also now be deposed as campaign chair. That role is decided by the National Party board, and the leader sits on that board.
Bennett said she would take some time before making any decisions about her own future.
However, the change will mean she loses her high list ranking – the party reserves three places for list-only MPs and one was reserved for Bennett, who would have been at number two.
After the vote, Bridges' supporter Brett Hudson told the Herald he would be disappointed if there was disunity.
"I have a much greater respect for both Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye than to think they would extract some sort of sense of revenge, and it would disappoint me deeply if members of the caucus who did not get the result they hoped for thought it would be appropriate to act in a way that was not in the interests of caucus."
Bridges was dispatched in that caucus meeting after about half an hour. It was a closed ballot and MPs are not told the numbers, but Bridges' camp believed it would have been very close given the support they had been promised. One believed the difference would have been just two votes.