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Race to replace English under way

Opinion Piece

Bill English’s bombshell announcement that he is standing down as leader of the Opposition and leaving Parliament in a fortnight ends one of the most distinguished political careers in New Zealand’s history and creates a headache for the National Party.

English has spent half his life in Parliament, experiencing both the highs and lows of political life.

He led National to its greatest defeat in 2002 but came back to be part of a highly-successful partnership with John Key for eight years and then, if only for 10 months, being prime minister.

His greatest contribution in that time was as finance minister through the twin disasters of the 2008 global financial crisis and 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

While Key was the charismatic leader, English was considered by many to be the ultimate safe pair of hands who steered the country through that fraught period and restored the economy to good health. Ironically, Jacinda Ardern and the Labour-led Government get the benefit of that.

While he led a conservative party, English was something of a liberal — with his social investment policy directed at people with the greatest risk of becoming long-term dependants.

That social challenge has passed firmly into Ardern’s hands and how she handles it will define her reign.

For National the race to replace English begins today, and possible contenders Nikki Kaye and Paula Bennett have already ruled themselves out. Bennett says she hopes to remain deputy — a position under considerable threat.

If you were a bookmaker you would have two potential favourites in Simon Bridges and Amy Adams, and some outsiders in the field like Judith Collins (the first to announce her candidacy today), Steven Joyce and Jonathan Coleman. Another outsider garnering favourable commentary is Mark Mitchell, a former policeman then security contractor, including in Iraq.

The essential problem for National is to first avoid a bloodbath, and then make sure the new leader has strong support and is able to establish themself. Then there is the challenge of facing an increasingly popular incumbent.