National Party caucus: Christopher Luxon channels David Cameron – ‘we do need to change to win’

ANALYSIS:

Christopher Luxon wants National to detoxify itself like the UK Conservatives did a decade ago – snatching power from Gordon Brown at the 2010 election, after three defeats.

… only he doesn’t want to seize power and implement half a decade of austerity like the Tories, slashing public services; he’s into kindness, just not the expensive type.

Luxon wants his party to change, “we need to demonstrate that we care about people”.

… but he’s often quicker to talk about “stakeholders” than “voters” or “people”; he’s into man-of-the-people stuff, but he knows where National’s bread is buttered.

Luxon and National really just want to win the 2023 election, and, at the party’s caucus retreat in Queenstown, they’re trying to find the best way to do it.

Part of it is working out what voters want. Luxon has finally resumed the party’s internal polling, after “flying blind” (his words) since the election. National is going to do qualitative and quantitative research (English translation: focus groups and polls). John Key’s pollster, Curia, has been commissioned and the party is looking to work out a more long-term polling strategy going forward.

Underneath the corporate sheen, Luxon is a politics geek (the composition of his library at home is skewed towards political memoir).

His geekery had him seize upon the idea that National might be able to detoxify its brand like David Cameron and George Osborne detoxified the UK Conservatives when they took power in 2005, to winning (by a whisker) the 2010 election.

To that effect, he invited Cameron to speak to National’s caucus on Monday. Cameron had Covid, so Osborne deputised, taking the caucus through the five years he charted the Tories through opposition to government in 2020.

It’s an apposite story for National.

Cameron moved away from the stuffy, privileged Conservatives of old, turned the party’s logo into a tree, visited a Norwegian glacier with huskies to burnish his green credentials, and talked a lot about social mobility, decent societies, and matching Labour’s generous public services spending.

Cameron and Osborne, wealthy, Eton and Oxford-educated, detoxified and humanised their party, and won the election.

It’s easy to see what Luxon – himself incredibly wealthy – sees in that.

But the parallel has downsides too. Looking at Cameron in opposition without remembering him in Government is a bit like thinking Atonement ends at the library scene.

Part of Cameron and Osborne’s detoxification programme was a pledge to match Labour’s spending – a pledge they dramatically U-turned on in the aftermath of the financial crisis before implementing a raft of severe social cuts.

Luxon spent a lot of Monday fighting off allegations he’d do the same thing on taking office, slashing things like health and education.

Luxon demurred by saying that the situation the UK faced back then was different to what New Zealand faces now – New Zealand’s finances are heading in that direction, he claimed, but he doesn’t think they’re there yet.

Indeed they aren’t.

Cameron took office when the UK’s deficit was 10 per cent of GDP, Luxon – should he win – would take office in a year where the deficit is 0.2 per cent of GDP, 50 times smaller. On current forecasts, whoever delivers the first budget after the election, will deliver an OBEGAL (Operating balance before gains and losses) surplus.

The economic problem isn’t on the Government’s books, they’re actually in good shape – the problem is everywhere else: inflation, house prices, wages.

National reckons it can see that too.

Luxon assigned Finance spokesman Simon Bridges Max Rashbrooke’s Too Much Money to read over the break. Bridges enjoyed it, and agreed with Rashbrooke on a lot. He led a closed-door briefing to caucus on his view of the economic situation, and noted an unusual trend: increasing support for National among the under-40s.

There’s a sense that Ardern and Labour shot to power in 2017 by speaking to younger voters about the bigger things that the state could do: why was the Government not more aspirational about child poverty and climate change?

Now, with under 40s working hard and locked out of home ownership, there’s a sense that people might be tired of talking about the state’s aspiration to lower emissions and tackle poverty, and more inclined to talk about their own: house, family – that sort of thing.

In his speech to caucus, Bridges said Labour was still wedded to Norman Kirk’s apocryphal dictum that all people want is “someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for” – he reckons New Zealanders are aspirational enough to want a little bit more than that: education, international careers, even wealth.

National faces some difficult policy decisions this year. It could argue to reduce public spending if inflation remains high, but that would run the risk of being accused of axing public services.

The party will want to reduce taxes, but that comes at the risk of increasing the budget deficit National will stake its reputation on closing.

Most likely it will do both at the same time, arguing it can do more for public services with less money. Whether or not the electorate will believe them is difficult to predict.

National’s caucus looks refreshed – one might even say bronzed – from its summer. Last year, an almost palpable sense of dread hung in the air around National MPs; caucus was pickled in its own anxiety, embittered, embattled and embarrassed.

But Luxon’s style is very different to many political leaders. He told caucus he wants to create a “high-performance team” – a line more common in the boardroom than the caucus room.

It’s a line I’m not sure caucus very much believes.

The thing is, politics is one of the most accountable, high performance, businesses there is; dreadful execs and employees can limp on forever, sustained by relationships and HR. Dreadful leaders on the other hand, are nightly disembowelled on the 6pm news, before being violently and publicly sacked by their colleagues.

High performers become PM – everyone else can lump it.

That’s the thing about performance in a caucus versus performance in a company. Employees rarely sack their executives, whereas caucuses routinely do. High performance cuts both ways, and in politics it tends to cut upwards rather than downwards.

Caucus will like Luxon as long as he succeeds. The signs of that are promising; he’s lifted the party’s polling to within striking distance of the Government.

Again, like Cameron, he reckons the secret to success likes in sticking to what makes your party strong – the economy, in National’s case – but also in mimicking his opponent on areas where National is weak.

“We know the size of our economy, the size of our economic engine,” Luxon said, before adding that he wants to succeed on issues like health, education, and climate.

“They’re codependent. They’re an ‘and’ not an ‘or'” Luxon said.

“People don’t think that we care about them – we care deeply about people, that’s why we’re here,” he said.

“We do have to change to win – we need to demonstrate that we care about people,” he said.

Caring, climate, education – you’d be forgiven for thinking the speech came from Jacinda Ardern.

That’s the other thing about Cameron; so perfectly did he mimic his opponent, Tony Blair, that upon taking office many in his caucus began to feel they’d won the election only to give Labour a fourth term.

Cameron was ultimately not destroyed by the Labour opposition, but by failing to tame the furies within his own party. The inherent stability of MMP caucuses gives Luxon a protective barrier on this front, but four years of factional infighting have dug wells of misanthropy and bad feeling in National’s caucus.

Luxon tried to demonstrate old wounds had healed, by indulging in a long, staged conversation with former leader Judith Collins during the lunch break, in front of TV cameras. But not even Collins’ facemask could hide the fact she was quite clearly not revelling in the experience of retreating into the caucus she once led.

Luxon knows winning is the only thing that will mend the fractures. That’s why the performance he needs to manage most is his own.

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