Politics

Claire Trevett: How nervous should PM Jacinda Ardern be about National’s leader Chris Luxon?

OPINION:

Summer – and Auckland’s release from strict lockdowns – could not have come at a better time for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

That is partly because it came at the same time as Christopher Luxon.

On a day on the campaign trail last year, the Herald watched Luxon strut his stuff at street corner meetings. One woman walked past and said “please tell me this man is going to solve the National Party’s problems”.

The response to his first few days has been filled with similar hopes. He did his first walkabout, flanked by Auckland MPs, on Friday at the Viaduct. There were congratulations and selfies.

National MPs are walking around as if a great weight has been lifted from their shoulders – the relief (and hope) is almost palpable.

Luxon does not quite inspire the “stardust” description Bill English attached to Jacinda Ardern in her early weeks (English had expected it to fade).

But the vibe within National and the response to Luxon from National supporters on the street is similar to that around Labour after Ardern took over.

Luxon faces a tougher job than Ardern because his caucus is in a more perilous state than hers was when she took over. However, Luxon also has more time to fix the situation – two years instead of a few months.

Some of the healing will be done by the polls. Even a small boost will be a morale booster for the MPs. Popularity begets popularity, and when MPs think they have a chance they’re more willing to fight for it.

The other morale booster will be if Luxon can succeed in getting some good early hits against the Government. That is less certain.

Ardern has tried to downplay the change in leadership, noting she has now faced five National Party leaders and sees no need to change the way she deals with them.

But after a long period of confusion about just what National stands for these days, it is already clear Luxon will take it firmly back to the voter-rich centre rather than hunting with Act after hares in such areas as race relations.

The initial positive response to Luxon should have made her and her party a little bit nervous, not least because it coincides with Labour’s own vote-getting wobbly.

Ardern knows from her own experience just how swiftly a leadership change that restores the faith of a party’s base can galvanise that party’s fortunes. Once that momentum starts it is also hard to stop.

By the time they face off in Parliament on Tuesday, Luxon will have had a week of clear air and be ensconced in his honeymoon.

But Labour’s research team will have had the same amount of time to trawl through everything Luxon has ever said to find something to ping him on. Ardern may well be happy to use it.

Ardern has made it a rule not to mock her rivals over their woes (her deputy Grant Robertson is not quite so reticent) – but Luxon is perhaps the first one she has had to take seriously.

She will be hoping summer is something of a salvation for her, that voters will be too busy making up for lost time to focus much on the new leader opposite her.

She will be hoping that a long, hopefully hot summer will help them forgive her for the season of lockdown that preceded it – and restore the eroding faith in her handling of the pandemic.

She will also be hoping Luxon stumbles while traipsing through the maze of the politics of the Covid-19 response.

He entered that maze on Friday, the day the country moved to the traffic light system.

As Aucklanders emerged blinking to take their first steps under a new system, Luxon said the city should have been put straight into the green light setting of the traffic light system – and that it should not exist at all with high vaccination rates.

He then ran through National’s long list of criticisms of the Government’s handling of the response.

It was his attempt to capitalise on Auckland’s anger at the months of lockdowns – but there is still a lot of nervousness about the spread of Covid-19 and the impact opening up more will have in the short term.

Simon Bridges could tell him it does not pay to get ahead of public opinion – no matter how right you might prove to be in the end.

Nor is a relentless parade of negativity and criticism on an issue of such uncertainty necessarily the way to start a leadership that is supposed to be based on a more optimistic footing.

Reviewing National’s own position on the Covid response should be one of the first things Luxon does, to make sure it is pitched right for his leadership.

It is not only those on the left who will be worried about Luxon – but those on the right – Act.

Luxon’s election will see money start to flow back into the coffers of National, and should also start to see the return of some of the voters who moved to Act out of disillusionment.

A lot of David Seymour’s success was built on the failures of National. It helped that Seymour was such a moderate face for Act. But they will not hesitate to return if they see National is on solid ground.

Luxon is also going through an intense getting-to-know-you phase. Among the things politicians tend to get scrutinised for are being rich and religious.

It is no surprise that the two things first raised with Luxon – and being drummed about by his critics on social media – were his views on issues such as abortion and his property holdings.

Luxon might even see it as a compliment: of all of National’s recent leaders he is coming under the most pressure, which reflects the levels of nervousness about him from his political rivals.

Key’s wealth was targeted through his career. The attacks on Key’s wealth never worked.

They will not work on Luxon either, and Luxon has not shied away from it, saying it was the result of a life of work and success. Being a self-made man is a point of honour for National.

But National is struggling with female voters and Luxon’s views on abortion may not help in that regard.

It is partly why Luxon chose Nicola Willis to be his deputy – she is pro-choice and a woman. When he has been asked about abortion, he has said he is pro-life – but pointed to Willis to show any votes he might face in that regard were already cancelled out.

His other effort to dampen it down was to signal he will vote in favour of a law change to allow safe zones around abortion clinics and to rule out any changes to the abortion laws if he was PM.

While it can go overboard, Luxon should not dismiss such scrutiny as mere gotcha politics.

Scrutiny of a person’s beliefs, background and moral views is part and parcel of an audition to be a Prime Minister.

Key himself once observed that it was not until he became Prime Minister that he appreciated why the scrutiny was so intense – it was not until then that he realised the scale of the decisions he had to make.

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