Nats face pressure to do a deal

:  National MP Mark Mitchell

National's leadership contest became even more complicated yesterday with another contender, Mark Mitchell, entering the race.

Nevertheless, it is widely assumed within the caucus that only Simon Bridges or Amy Adams can get the numbers to win and that at present Bridges may be ahead.

However although Judith Collins is said to have few MPs supporting her, support for her from among the party membership is high.

There were reports from electorate executive meetings over the weekend and last night coming out strongly in support of her.

She, therefore, remains a player.

That is why it is perhaps not surprising that yesterday senior figures within the caucus were starting to call for a brokered deal so that the caucus meeting to elect the leader on Tuesday was faced with a ticket they could all support.

Such a deal would likely involve Bridges, Adams and Collins.

It would be consistent with the way previous leadership contests have been resolved.

Historically National has preferred to go into its caucus leadership elections with the result pretty much known in advance.

Only the post-Muldoon election in 1985 which involved four candidates had an air of uncertainty about it,  though the eventual winner, Jim McLay was the favourite in much the same way Bridges is now.

The contenders for the leadership are not debating policy in public but there are big policy issues at the heart of this election and they centre on the economy though there is a strong body of opinion in favour of a more defined environment policy.

But because the economy is such a big internal issue the future of the former Finance Minister Steven Joyce has become a proxy for this debate.

Mitchell has been the most forthright in his support of Joyce.

When he announced his candidacy yesterday, he said that Joyce had done an outstanding job "and will continue to do an outstanding job".

“I don’t think there is anyone that understands the economy and what’s happening inside it better than Steven Joyce,” he said.

"I have the greatest respect for him, and I know that under my leadership I would expect Steven to stay on in that role."

But POLITIK understands that at National's two-day caucus in Tauranga the week before last, there was a debate about the "big picture" economic policies.

There was apparently not universal support for the tight fiscal approach of Joyce, and three senior MPs have told POLITIK that there is significant opposition from within the caucus to him continuing as the sole finance spokesperson.

Other MPs are already putting their hands up to replace him.

Consequently, there is some suspicion that Mitchell’s candidacy may be part of a plan to save Joyce and possibly another former Minister who Mitchell has been close to, Paula Bennett.

However, Mitchell, yesterday was nothing if not confident about his own credentials to be leader.

And he drew some interesting support with former Maori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell posting “ka pai Mitch” on his Facebook page.

Mitchell says he places himself slightly to the right of centre but he remains influenced by the concepts of Catholic compassion that he picked up at his old school, Rosmini College.

He is one of the most widely liked people in Parliament, but his Caucus colleagues doubt that he has much support.

He is also emphatic that he would not accept the position of deputy leader which means unless he can get at least 10 or so supporters any deal-making would involve only Bridges, Adams and Collins.

The whole contest took on another turn last night with the One News Colmar Brunton Poll showing Labour on 48%, its highest level for 15 years.

Ominously for National that was what it recorded in polling in its first February in office in 2009.

Instead, last night it was down 3% to 43%.

There was some comment last night that the poll surely spelt the end to the "business as usual" approach being advocated by some in the caucus; that all that was needed was to wait for Labour and its coalition to fall apart and National would be back in.

Collins, in particular, will now be arguing that the only way Labour will be defeated will be if National is a tough opposition.

Though the odds still favour a Bridges-Adams leadership; the outside chance of a Bridges-Collins leadership increased slightly last night, particualrly if the decision is pre-baked behind clsoed doors over the weekend.

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