And now there are three … possibly six. New Zealand’s health minister Jonathan Coleman, finance minister Bill English and police and corrections minister Judith Collins have confirmed they will run in the vote to replace John Key as prime minister.
Deputy prime minister English is the favourite for the governing National Party’s ballot next Monday, given Key’s endorsement in his resignation speeches yesterday. He did not nominate a possible deputy.
But choosing English means bringing up his baggage: as leader, he took National to a historic low in the 2002 election, and his wooden appearance at a post-resignation press conference yesterday did not inspire colleagues.
Coleman, an abrasive and ambitious politician, said he was standing because he sensed an appetite for change.
He would not name a possible deputy. Asked if Justice Minister Amy Adams would provide a female and South Island balance, he said he would like to work with her.
Collins, a similarly front-foot minister, confirmed she would run as she entered parliament this afternoon, where a snap debate took place on Key’s bombshell departure.
She said the leadership should go to the best person for the job, and said the next election – due in October or November – would be hard-fought.
She underlined the different approach she would bring as a woman candidate, saying the National leader needed to connect to both men and women, as well as all ethnicities.
Social housing minister Paula Bennett will not rule out entering the race, repeatedly deflecting questions. Bennett is National’s fifth-ranked MP and the most senior woman in Cabinet.
Steven Joyce, who holds a number of business-related portfolios and runs the party’s election campaigns, would not rule out a bid. Transport minister Simon Bridges, touted as a future leader before Key’s decision, would not rule anything in or out.
A recent poll asked who people favoured to take over from Key should he step down. English received 21%; Joyce 16%; Bennett 11%; Collins 6%.
Uncertainty, too, for the three minor parties that have propped up Key’s government, by giving his minority party the numbers to stay in power. Their political futures may now be in doubt.
All three – Act, the Maori Party and United Future – backed English. “The ball game has changed,” said United Future leader Peter Dunne, who has benefited from National endorsements in the past two elections. “I think there’s a whole lot of questions but it’s far too soon to attempt to answer them.”
On the other side of Parliament, opposition parties gave generous tributes to Key and refused to speculate whether their election chances have improved.
Labour and the Greens appeared quietly thrilled. Labour leader Andrew Little would not comment whether National were weaker without their leader of 10 years; Green Party co-leader James Shaw, while noting that Key’s departure “clearly changes things”, was similarly gracious.
NZ First leader Winston Peters was less generous, saying Key’s reasons for standing down were not credible. He said Key was leaving because the economy was no longer healthy and his government was no longer able to “muddy the waters”.
Writing in the NZ Herald, Otago University politics lecturer Bryce Edwards described Key’s decision as “made on the basis of what is good for John Key, not what is good for National, let alone for New Zealand.”
Suggesting Key had walked rather than face either a possible election loss or the uncomfortable prospect of an electoral deal with Peters to retain power, Edwards continued: “There is no doubt that National would have a better chance of winning a fourth term under Key’s leadership than anyone else. His leadership is probably worth 3-5 percentage points for National. We might expect that a National Party under Bill English or Paula Bennett would struggle to get even 45 per cent of the party vote…
“New Zealand will remember John Key mostly as a successful prime minister. Part of this has been down to his strong forte in making political calculations. There should be no doubt that he used these skills in weighing up whether to go into a fourth election.
“And he has probably made the right call in judging that the risks to his legacy, reputation, and enjoyment in office were seriously negative if he stayed in the game. But the National Party might have reason to question the consequences of his latest decision.”