Who will replace McCully?

:  Gerry Brownlee. Chris Finlayson and Murray McCully at then-PM John Key's national security speech in 2014
 

Next week will see the beginning of the end for Foreign Minister  Murray McCully.

He has a speech looking back at his time as Foreign Minister lined up for the Institute of International Affairs and a discrete celebration planned for some of his colleagues and old mates.

But in the best traditions of politics and the way he liked to play it, the talk in the Beehive is not of what McCully has achieved – and he has achieved a lot – but of who will replace him.

There are usually four names on any odds-makers’ list.

Jonathan Coleman is on record as saying he would one day like the job, and there is a school of thought who believed he might have been promised it when he stood down as a leadership contender last year.

But he has been adamant to friends that he no longer wants it; that he wants to stay in New Zealand with his young family and that he believes that it could be traded away after the election in any deal with NZ First anyway.

Coleman is ambitious, and a cynic might argue that building his name in New Zealand for another leadership attempt some time in the future might be easier if he was in the country.

Mark Mitchell, the popular former chair of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee has already stood in for McCully at a recent conference in the Middle East and has made a big impression on Wellington's diplomatic community with his open approach to foreign policy.

But though he has been recently elevated to the Ministry he is not in the Cabinet.

Traditionalists would argue that the Minister of Foreign Affairs should already be a senior Cabinet Minister, not a new arrival.

And English demonstrated with last year’s Cabinet reshuffle that he is not given to bold moves in making his Cabinet.

There are however two senior ministers who have indicated privately they would like the job.

Both of them, Chris Finlayson and Gerry Brownlee, already have irons in the foreign policy fire.

Finlayson as Minister in Charge of the Intelligence Agencies manages the crucial relationship with the other four of the five eyes; Australia, Canada, the UK and the USA.

As such he is across most of the issues confronting foreign affairs in some detail.

Wikileaks documents show that in 2006 he advocated that a future National Government should relax the ban on nuclear ships --- a position the same documents show McCully opposed.

But, possibly unfortunately for him, the Prime Minister might consider that his role as Treaty Negotiations Minister is too important, particularly for any post-election negotiations with the Maori Party, for him to be lost from that portfolio.

Could he do both?

Possibly. After all, McCully has always had other portfolios apart from Foreign Affairs.

 Brownlee at the 2015 Shangrila Dialogue with China's Admiral Sun Jianguo

Brownlee at the 2015 Shangrila Dialogue with China's Admiral Sun Jianguo

His main rival for the job, Gerry Brownlee, however already has a replacement for his key role as Leader of the House lined up.

Simon Bridges is deputy-leader and would welcome the chance to move up a slot into the full role.

Brownlee’s main claim to the role is his present portfolio of Defence.

He has travelled a lot with this and has built up a solid contact file which includes some big-name US and Chinese politicians.

His shakeup of defence policy in the Defence  White paper was heavily focussed on strategy, and he has given major addresses in China and at the Shangrila, dialogue setting out New Zealand's position on the South China Sea.

English surely owes him one. After all, Brownlee stepped aside from the deputy-leadership to make way for English in 2006 when John Key took over from Don Brash.

Against that there has always been a certain distance in the relationship between Brownlee and English; they are very different personalities.

English, as he has already demonstrated, plays Cabinet decisions very close to his chest.

So no one really knows, but there is a growing expectation among his colleagues and diplomats that Brownlee will get the job.

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