Two weeks ago coup rumours were dismissed as a beat-up. FRANCESCA MOLD and JOHN ARMSTRONG look at what went wrong.

Late on Monday evening, the National Party's floor in Parliament Buildings resembled the barren decks of the ghost ship, the Mary Celeste.

Lights blazed, doors were wide open, but the offices were empty.

Through the door of Bill English's office could be seen an open packet of plain biscuits lying on the coffee table next to a couple of empty mugs.


But Mr English was nowhere to be found. In the wake of Jenny Shipley's resignation, the next leader of the National Party, along with other colleagues, had gone to ground.

Through the evening, their phones rang unanswered.

Yet two weeks ago, MPs had been only too happy to dismiss suggestions of a leadership coup as either a media beat-up or Labour Party-fuelled speculation designed to divert attention from the Government's own problems.

Why change the leader when National was finally starting to get Helen Clark and her ministers on the back foot? they chirped.

As usual, the denials were as reliable as a bounced cheque.

The truth was Mrs Shipley simply wasn't cutting it as Leader of the Opposition, arguably the most wretched job in politics. The window of opportunity for changing the leader before next year's November election was closing fast. But many National MPs were paralysed by indecision.

National doesn't change its leaders lightly. While they knew Mrs Shipley had been given adequate time to prove herself on the Opposition benches, many MPs were still unsure whether Mr English had the qualities necessary for a leader.

There was also an irritation that the Southland MP was being foisted on them by cheerleaders in the media.


The turning point was Mrs Shipley's decision to proceed with her overseas trip to France, Finland and the United States the day after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Her mistake did two things. It gave Mr English the opportunity to show a level of performance some had doubted he was capable of, and she returned seemingly insensitive to the mood of the caucus. Those who tried to remain loyal to her, perhaps against their better judgment, quickly got the impression she wasn't going to listen to their concerns about her performance.

While she was overseas, senior MPs sent her messages that all was not well within the caucus. She apparently ignored these warnings.

The "cells" of unhappy MPs were spread across the four caucus factions - the Bratpackers, the 1996 intake, the 1999 "Millennium Club" and a residual element of long-serving MPs who felt under threat by the call made by party president Michelle Boag for early retirements.

Caucus sources yesterday stressed that at that point there was no number counting - but conditions were ripening fast for a leadership coup.

The only problem was there could not be a coup in the conventional sense because Mr English had promised not to directly challenge Mrs Shipley.

Instead, those wanting change would have to carefully measure the caucus mood and present Mrs Shipley with a fait accompli, telling her a clear majority of her MPs wanted her to step down.

Mr English had to stand to one side and let others do his bidding. This was done principally by Albany MP Murray McCully, Karapiro's Lindsay Tisch, the chairman of the Millennium Club, and North Shore MP Wayne Mapp, a member of the 1996 intake. The party's only Maori MP, Georgina te Heu Heu, was also believed to have played a pivotal role.

The finger has also been pointed at Roger Sowry but sources said he had kept some distance because he could not afford to have sullied himself when he put himself forward for the deputy leadership.

Mrs Shipley compounded matters with her poor handling of the leadership issue on her return from overseas last week.

She tested the loyalty of her diminishing band of supporters by telling supposed coup instigators to put up or shut up.

This, and her subsequent poor showing in the House last week, were the catalysts for the bloodless coup.

By Thursday, English supporters had begun to move, testing the waters and counting the numbers, while ensuring Mrs Shipley supporters were kept in the dark.

"That's when the button was pushed," said one MP yesterday.

Mr English, meanwhile, was taking a break with his family at a Waiheke Island holiday home belonging to Ms Boag. Despite the inevitable conspiracy theories, sources said she was not involved in the plotting because she could not afford to be seen to be, although she was likely to be aware of the manoeuvring.

Mr English was definitely aware, having received several phone calls from Mr McCully. By Saturday, Auckland business circles and National Party members were abuzz with rumours that a leadership challenge was going to be mounted at the Tuesday caucus.

By Sunday, Mr Tisch and Dr Mapp had told Mr English that he had sufficient support.

The magic number was 26 - a compelling two-thirds of the 39- strong caucus. Staunch English supporters included Mr McCully, Mr Sowry, Tony Ryall, Nick Smith, Dr Mapp, Georgina te Heu Heu, Mr Tisch, Marie Hasler, Brian Neeson, Gavan Herlihy, Richard Worth, Paul Hutchison, Simon Power, Lynda Scott, Katherine Rich and Anne Tolley.

Several other waverers subsequently moved Mr English's way, leaving Mrs Shipley with up to only 10 supporters. These are thought to have included Bob Simcock, her numbers man during the 1997 Bolger coup, Maurice Williamson, Max Bradford, John Luxton, John Carter, David Carter, Gerry Brownlee, Annabel Young and Alec Neill.

On Monday, Mrs Shipley was in Auckland for a standard day of meetings with lobby groups and the unveiling of a billboard promoting National's call for a referendum on MMP. Back at Parliament, her staff were beginning to get wind something was up.

But by then, Mr McCully had made a crucial telephone call to National's chief whip John Carter. It is the whip's job to be the conduit for bad news. Mr Carter then rang Mrs Shipley to tell her that a substantial number of the caucus wanted her to step down.

Still in Auckland, Mrs Shipley hurriedly caught a plane back to Wellington. She would have spent the trip mulling over her decision. But she would have known from her experience in ousting Jim Bolger in 1997 that it was futile to try to fight and that a dignified exit was preferable.

She contacted her family, and son Ben, with whom she shares a flat in Wellington, rushed to her side. She then called a press conference for 7.40 pm in National's caucus room.

Flanked by John Carter, junior whip Mr Neill and front bencher Mr Bradford, Mrs Shipley announced her resignation.

Ten minutes later, she had retreated to the leader's suite, leaving the lights to burn in the temporarily leaderless Opposition wing.

JENNY SHIPLEY: the good, the bad ... and the controversial

Former Prime Minister and National Party leader Jenny Shipley has had a rollercoaster political career - not always helped by a tendency to shoot herself in the foot politically. Some of her best and worst moments:

Career highs

* Taking over from Jim Bolger as Prime Minister after a backroom coup in November 1997.

* Sacking Winston Peters in August 1998 when it became clear the National-NZ First Coalition was over.

* Hosting US President Bill Clinton, Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin and other world leaders at the 1999 Apec conference in Auckland.

Worst gaffes

* Trying to deny claims that over dinner with Saatchi & Saatchi chief Kevin Roberts she offered the ad agency a $30 million Tourism Board contract in return for a good deal on National Party advertising at the next election. First she denied the dinner took place, then she denied discussing the Tourism Board - even though a letter from Roberts later showed she did.

* Saying on national television that former TVNZ newsreader John Hawkesby was paid $1 million to leave. When Hawkesby denied it, she was forced to apologise. Interviewer Linda Clark said Shipley told her after the programme: "I made it up."

* Telling Parliament in May last year that Pacific Islanders should get more Government help because "they climb in the windows of other New Zealanders at night ... It's not only Maori."

* Claiming last week that Americans at a dinner in New York had criticised New Zealand's response to the terrorist attacks on the US. Despite repeated requests, she was unable to name any names.

Controversial decisions

* Cutting benefits as Social Welfare Minister in 1991.

* Cutting superannuation entitlements in 1998.

* Promising tax cuts twice in 1999, but failing to deliver both times.