Claire Trevett: Christopher Luxon and National’s (unlikely) path to 2023 victory

OPINION:

To the party faithful, National ending up so convincingly back in Opposition is somewhat akin to Johnny and Moira Rose washing up in the television comedy Schitt’s Creek.

So you can imagine the reception MPs will get when they front up to the party’s annual general meeting.

At the gathering former National Prime Minister Sir John Key will be a speaker. He will gaze down at the crumbling ruins of the mighty edifice that the party was under his reign and try to assure them it can be mortared back together.

At the moment National is irrelevant. There is precious little interest among the wider public, who pushed it into irrelevancy only a month ago.

Labour and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern are enjoying their honeymoon. National’s leader Judith Collins could literally howl at the moon and nobody would pay any attention.

Irrelevancy is a problem and it is hard to overcome, but also buys a party a period of quiet to work things out – a time in which it can effectively fly under the radar.

It has so far made one decision -the caucus reconfirming Collins as its leader.

But many MPs doubt she will be the one to lead them into the 2023 election.

Collins was very much elected as a leader for a particular time and job.

That job was to do whatever she could to try to salvage something out of the complete and utter mess National had made for itself.

However, there is less unanimity about who could replace her and even less energy to do so.

Frankly, the MPs are too busy sulking to be pro-active and the options are limited and risky.

Do they give Mark Mitchell a go? Do they give Simon Bridges a second go, or is it too soon? Do they take a punt on Shane Reti? Or do they leap straight to the next step, and plump for Christopher Luxon, anointed heir of Key?

The fact there is no clear option is reason enough to do nothing yet.

It has learned how self-destructive it is to change the leader simply to get rid of the existing one.

The new leader has to be better. They cannot afford to take another chance on a “maybe.”

Eventually there will be one clear option.

Whether justified or not, it is increasingly clear that National supporters see Luxon as the light at the end of the tunnel.

The question is how long that tunnel has to be. Can the end be 2023?

There is a something of a spooky phenomenon in how closely Luxon’s political career is so far paralleling Key’s.

Both entered Parliament when National was at a very low ebb. Key arrived in 2002 after the party’s worst election result. Luxon landed in 2020 after its second worse result.

What lies ahead could also run along similar lines – a 5 year wait and then the ascendancy to the leadership. It will be what Luxon is hoping for but it relies on National losing again.

Had National’s final election resultbeen a little bit healthier, the party could have stood a chance of a comeback in 2023.

Luxon would then have had to weigh up whether to move earlier rather than miss his chance of becoming Prime Minister.

Caucus too would have to weigh up whether Luxon was actually their best option for recapturing New Zealanders’ support.

That chance appears so slim that Luxon will happily bide his time.

It is far from ideal, but not impossible that Luxon could change National’s fortunes in one term even if it fell short of getting back into power.

Giving Luxon a chance to pull it off would require the rest of the caucus to recognise he was their best chance, and perhaps their only chance, and put their own egos and ambitions to one side.

He would also need at least two years to get his head around Parliament.

The best handovers in history have been clean ones, with Andrew Little stepping aside forArdern in 2017 the most recent example.

In 2005, Don Brash’s handover to Key was so clean Brash even involved Keyin the recruitment of his chief of staffWayne Eagleson on the grounds Key was likely to inherit Eagleson.

For Luxon to do it in one term, it would effectively require a quiet arrangement for a handover in 2022 without the caucus churning through leaders in the interim and further destabilising things.

It would also require Collins to help prepare Luxon, and to step aside when the time was right.

Human nature being what it is, many of the elements of this strategy are extremely unlikely.

Many MPs in the last term did things they claimed were “for the good of the party” which proved to be just the opposite. That will not change.

As things stand, Luxon will have no appetite for the risk of a first-term move.

His best chance remains to follow the path of Key.

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