State of the race week 1: Game on.

In a week no one predicted, Labour leader Andrew Little will be facing a new leader of the National Party and a new Prime Minister at next year’s general election.

Ironically, off the back of the most recent Colmar Brunton poll which showed support for the National Party up and support for the Prime Minister at a new low, it will be John Key that benefits and the party that suffers after his sudden resignation.

Key exits while still relatively popular, a rarity in modern politics. Consider three of the most recent Prime Ministerial resignations;

Matteo Renzi – the Prime Minister of Italy resigned on the same day following a defeat in a referendum where he attempted to pass constitutional reforms that would amend the powers of the senate.
Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson – the Prime Minister of Iceland resigned following his party’s extremely poor performance in the election.
David Cameron – the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom resigned following Brexit.

Because Key leaves office following no controversy or outstanding electoral defeat, it is likely he won’t be remembered too negatively by the public. Although this now makes National’s road to victory in 2017 considerably more difficult, it also shows Key’s confidence in the party that it can survive without him. Key has led Labour in virtually every poll since becoming leader in 2006, and every poll since becoming Prime Minister with leads at minimum of around 7%.

However, the reality of losing one of the most popular Prime Ministers in New Zealand history is not lost on the National Party. John Key told media tears were shed as he announced his decision. Ideological divides have already opened with the right-wing fielding a candidate in Judith Collins, the moderate establishment standing Bill English and the moderate outsiders backing Jonathan Coleman.

Judith Collins:
Right-wing stalwart and comeback minister for Police and Corrections, Collins was let go from cabinet during the 2014 election campaign following a string of controversies. She’s backed by former National Party and ACT New Zealand leader Don Brash, who recently founded the Hobson’s Pledge group. Whilst Collins is the only candidate in the field to have supported same-sex marriage, she resembles a desire within the National Party to return to certain elements of social conservatism, including ending perceived Maori privileges. Once rumoured to have the support of an angry backbench, Collins also represents a desire to return to National’s core and away from the centre ground, where the right-wing believe Key has failed to spend his political capital.

Considered an outsider and relatively unlikely to win, Collins would also be a risky choice. Prone to controversy and unashamedly polarising, there would be a segment of the electorate that would take a liking to her as Prime Minister, but for the mainstream she remains off-putting.

Collins entered parliament in 2002, three years after leaving the Labour Party. She represented the South Auckland seat of Clevedon for six years, then the seat of Papakura. Her majority was massively reduced at the last general election, inspiring 43% of the vote, down from 59% in 2011. She is backed by right-wing blogger Cameron Slater, and her nephew boxer Joseph Parker.

Bill English:
Safe. Palatable. Status-quo. Bland. Stale. Bill English represents another year of John Key style governance, only without John Key. That means the same centre to centre-right economic management without the boyish charm, charisma and much needed connection with the New Zealand public. English is a hard worker, career politician, respected in the business community and has led New Zealand’s economic recovery. English lacks a relationship with the New Zealand public that Key enjoyed, and this could prove difficult less than a year out from the election.

He’s unlikely to scare away too many voters with bold new ideas and controversy, but the question remains as to whether he can inspire and excite National’s base to vote. Asking the electorate to give your government a fourth term without offering enthusiasm is a tough ask. Questions remain over how much English even wants the job, 26 years into his parliamentary career. He had a previous shot at Prime Minister in 2002, and led National to an election defeat unparalleled by either party in New Zealand electoral history – English’s National Party won just 20.9% of the vote, and won the party vote in just four electorates. English insists he’s learned from the electoral master John Key since then, and that “you learn more from losing than winning”.

He entered parliament in the National landslide of 1990 as the youthful MP for Wallace (now Clutha-Southland). Originally a farming man from Dipton, English has held jobs as a policy advisor in Wellington where he has lived for much of his life, and raised his family. A Wellingtonian in all respects bar the fact of his place of birth, English gave up the Clutha-Southland seat in 2014 for Todd Barclay, an MP he has refused to give his endorsement. English is backed by Deputy Prime Minister aspirants Paula Bennett and Simon Bridges. He has also received the support of outgoing Prime Minister John Key and all three of National’s confidence and supply partners. A social conservative, English voted against same sex marriage and identifies as pro-life.

Jonathan Coleman:
Widely unknown among the public, Jonathan Coleman offers a new direction for the party and a reconnection with its disaffected backbench. Said to have a strange advantage in his appearance, which is like Key’s, Coleman also wishes to target to the centre ground. He’s already signalled he wishes to take Key’s proposed tax cuts off the table, and instead allocate additional funds into public services like health and education. He previously served as minister of defense before switching to his current minister of health role in 2014, an area in which he has faced little major controversy and public disquiet despite strong criticism from the opposition, particularly over the quality of hospital food and doctors’ strikes.

He was elected MP for the Auckland electorate of Northcote in 2005, defeating sitting MP Ann Hartley of the Labour Party. A Doctor by profession, Coleman has long held leadership aspirations.

Who might Key’s resignation benefit?

They’ll be breathing a sigh of relief at least. After a horror week which saw the party drop to a new poll low and rumours of more defections following Nick Leggett’s exit, Andrew Little had a good week with a Mount Roskill by-election win which the National Party tried to paint as a referendum on his leadership. Now their biggest obstacle is out of the way; the unbeatable charisma of John Key. It gives them breathing space to talk about their policy and vision, and if Little’s general debate speech on Key’s resignation is any clue as to how the party will campaign, it will be an effort focusing on the core issues – health, education, housing and law and order. Little was positive in his response to Key’s exit, which could work in his favour given the Prime Minister’s insistent popularity. A snap poll since Key’s resignation suggests 46% of voters predict Labour will rise.

New Zealand First:
It was all negative from Winston Peters and New Zealand First, but a vocal proportion of the population seems to have responded from that well. Strong support for Winston Peters on social media and on talkback radio may not be surprising, but it will invigorate his electorate. It gives Peters the chance to appear as the strongest leader in the country, outshining the calmness of Bill English, the current leadership favourite and Andrew Little who he often leads as preferred Prime Minister. New Zealand First was already planning a strong campaign in 2014, and Key’s resignation will only give them reason to smile. 9% of voters predict New Zealand First stands to benefit the most over the coming weeks.

The Greens:
The Greens and National share a common voter base in suburban liberals, turned off by some of the conservative elements of Labour and New Zealand First. The Greens have adopted a more centre-left, more appealing and more mainstream tac since James Shaw assumed the co-leadership, and this could do well for them in attempting to take social liberals and some younger voters who lean National, and may be hungry for something different to Bill English’s social conservatism. Just ten hours before the Greens recruited sportswoman, television star and model Hayley Holt to stand on the list and potentially in the Prime Minister’s seat of Helensville.

8% of voters predict Key’s resignation will benefit National. Some supporters were turned off by Key’s proposed tax cuts, preferring the extra money to be spent on debt reduction. Additionally, the change gives National a chance to reform and refresh, looking new, rather than stale, as it comes into election year.

MPs resigning in 2017 (so far):
Labour: Clayton Cosgrove (List), David Cunliffe (New Lynn).
National: Chester Borrows (Whanganui), John Key (Helensville), Jono Naylor (List), Hekia Parata (List), Lindsay Tisch (Waikato), Maurice Williamson (Pakuranga).

MPs standing again, but only for the List (so far):
Murray McCullay (National) MP for East Coast Bays since 1987.
Trevor Mallard (Labour) MP for Hutt South since 1996, MP for Pencarrow from 1993 till 1996 and MP for Hamilton West from 1984 till 1990.

The marginals:
Auckland Central (held by Nikki Kaye of National by a 600 vote majority versus Labour).
Hutt South (held by Trevor Mallard of Labour by a 709 vote majority versus National’s Chris Bishop. Virginia Andersen will be Labour’s candidate in 2017, replacing Mallard).
Ohariu (held by Peter Dunne of United Future by a 710 vote majority versus Labour).
Te Tai Tokerau (held by Kelvin Davis of Labour by a 743 vote majority versus the MANA Movement’s Hone Harawira).

The polls:
Latest poll (as of Wednesday, 7 December 2016)
Note: taken before resignation of John Key.
Roy Morgan poll for October/November
National 49.5%, Labour 23.0%, Greens 14.5%, NZ First 8.0%, Maori 1.5%, ACT 1.0%, United Future 0.5%, Conservative 0.5%, MANA Movement 0.0% (GOVERNMENT 52.5%, OPPOSITION 45.5%).
Poll average: National 47%, Labour 28%, Greens 11%, NZ First 9%, Maori 1%, ACT 0.5%, MANA Movement 0.4%, Conservative 0.2%, United Future 0.1%. (GOVERNMENT 48.6%, OPPOSITION 48.0%).

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