There's a lot of talk about who will be the next leader of the National Party. The real question is: where will they lead it to?
Simon Bridges, Todd Muller and Judith Collins had all clearly aspired to be leader for many years and dedicated their political careers to that end – climbing the greasy pole to the top. But when they got there, they suddenly found they didn't know what they wanted to do with all that power once they had it. No vision for their party. Worse, no vision for New Zealand. So, they failed as leaders.
National is operating under the illusion that they are the natural government and they have only been temporarily displaced by this young upstart, Jacinda Ardern. They tell themselves they don't need a vision, they don't need to change with the times. That when she doesn't deliver, the voters will come home.
But she has delivered. Not on everything, by a long way. But on the big test, the biggest health and economic crisis in a century, Ardern has delivered world-leading leadership, keeping Kiwis alive and in work.
Two years ago, National might have been right to think the Ardern-led Coalition would fracture and fail, and they would just be handed back the reins of government. No more. Now, National needs a plan – for itself and for the country – that appeals to voters.
The problem is, they have separated themselves so much from modern New Zealand that they don't know what we voters want anymore. National's MPs are 70% male, 90% Pakeha, and 100% straight. There are more white guys called Chris in their caucus than there are Maori in total.
On conscious issues like euthanasia and abortion, the majority of National MPs side with the small minority of voters. Their newer MPs – chosen through an outdated selection process - are mostly Pakeha, male, deeply religious conservatives. Think Chris Luxon and Simeon Brown. That doesn't appeal to a country that is becoming more diverse, progressive and secular.
Without a positive vision of their own to sell, National is left with nothing but negativity.
It seems the only time you see Judith Collins is when she has a kneejerk reaction against a government policy. Whether it's promising to reinstate tax breaks for landlords or opposing getting rid of DHBs, she always seems to be to the negative, losing side of the argument.
Meanwhile, her MPs are running loose, wildly off-message, and undisciplined. Shane Reti complaining about state houses going up in his neighbourhood. Stuart Smith opposing concrete action on climate change. Luxon lamenting that a fair wage for café workers will add five cents to the price of his flat white. Bridges grinning for the cameras as he openly organises a coup against Collins.
Is this the end of National?
No. Parties go through these periods of chaos in opposition, when their message is tired and out of date, their leaders weak and unpopular. Labour was in the same position not so long ago. It took the thoughtful leadership of Andrew Little to rebuild the party into a functioning machine, and the skill of Ardern to steer that machine to victory.
So, where is National's next Prime Minister? The person who can pull the current mob back into an organised unit and inspire, not just the members but the public, with ideas for building a better New Zealand? Someone in touch with modern New Zealand – who wants to get serious about housing, poverty, and climate change, who embraces diversity and is socially liberal.
National needs an updated John Key for the 2020s. It's hard to see that person in the current caucus.
Luxon thinks it's him, and he's not shy telling everyone about it. But he's had some embarrassing missteps early in his career and gets under his colleagues' skin with his big-noting. His conservatism is at odds with where the centre voters are at, and he doesn't seem to have any vision - apart from a dream of himself as PM.
Reti isn't up to being a leader. Bridges isn't trusted in National and is never too far away from the kind of outbursts that cost him the job the first time round.
The centre-wing of the party, Nicola Willis and Chris Bishop, are seen by their colleagues as the architects of the failed Muller coup. While they are more in touch with centre voters (Bishop came close to holding the swing seat of Hutt South) they tend to be too clever by half, and are just too liberal to win the vote in caucus.
Someone other than Collins is going to lead National into the 2023 election. Unless they can suddenly produce a compelling narrative for New Zealand's future and pull the party together as well, they too will struggle to make a dent into Ardern's popularity.
The old hands in National are already starting to think about 2026. If they want to win then, they'd better bring in some new blood in 2023.