There's an old saying in the commercial world that when business is bad, the partners fall out. It's the same in politics. Between elections parties measure success by their standing in the polls. High ratings such as those enjoyed by Helen Clark's government assist with internal discipline. For an opposition party, small ups and downs are acceptable so long as the trajectory in public support is in the right direction. Low support for months or years on end causes ructions. The leader, or the message, or the party's public relations (usually in that order), come under fire. A government facing oblivion begins to resemble a death bed where relatives jockey in anticipation of the will. For oppositions there have never been prizes. A caucus that fails to rise in the polls becomes a snake pit. I well recall Labour's years in the doldrums under the leadership of Bill Rowling between 1978 and 1983, and then the slow collapse of the Fourth Labour Government between 1988 and 1990. Factional struggles, infighting and competing ambitions produced a poisonous cocktail.
The National Party has been in a most unhappy state. Whispers about coups leak out under the caucus room door. After 16 years in Parliament, nine of them as a minister, Maurice Williamson clearly feels he has nothing to lose by stating openly what many colleagues and party functionaries inwardly feel. Bill English has an excellent mind, but can be fuzzy on policy, and is yet to grip voters' attention. As he struggles, Rowling-like, to resurrect himself and his party, impatient colleagues yearn to skip more nimbly across the fox holes towards office. But someone who takes that path always risks fire from the back and the front. How to manage the impatient becomes a test of leadership. Bill English has struck out boldly against his public critic, but is risking a great deal. He could quickly find himself the victim rather than the master, as happened with Bill Rowling.
As I watch the National caucus deal with Williamson I recall Rowling's move against me early in 1982. Rowling was honest, earnest, and a proud New Zealander, but he lacked the capacity to land telling blows on Prime Minister Muldoon. As Labour's leader, Rowling made little personal impact on voters. In 1981 he lost his third election. The party was already factionalised. One group wanted his deputy, David Lange, to take over quickly. Rowling, however, was surrounded by a group of fair-weather friends like party president Jim Anderton and his then acolytes, Helen Clark and Margaret Wilson. They wanted to keep Rowling in place until Anderton was in Parliament to take over. Always a Messiah in waiting, Anderton barged about, telling caucus what to do, instructing party delegates, and constantly up-staging Rowling. A group of us found his behaviour increasingly intolerable and said as much publicly. Several threatened to stand against him for the party presidency. Despite declaring he was "the boss", Rowling looked more and more like Anderton's puppet.
In February 1982 Rowling foolishly decided to drop his sternest critics from his Shadow Cabinet. He got only one. After endless caucus balloting I was "it". This proved a Pyrrhic victory for Rowling. The cartoonist Bromhead pictured a couple of startled voters looking at my face in the newspaper and saying "Fancy losing to a three-times loser!" I bought the cartoon and hung it in my office for all to see. Mike Moore thought caucus meetings so meaningless that he threatened to bring a pack of cards to while away the hours. Rowling's opponents redoubled their efforts to topple him. His support haemorrhaged, and by the end of 1982 he had no option but to retire. Playing tough from a position of weakness can't carry conviction.
Bill English's position, of course, is slightly different. Some feel that he hasn't had enough time to demonstrate his leadership credentials. Moreover, he hasn't got a David Lange breathing down his neck. Furthermore, whatever one thinks of National's message, it has certainly been coming across with greater clarity in recent months. But don't underestimate the Williamson issue's capacity to destabilise the National Party. Bill English needs a substantial majority of his fair-weather friends to stay in behind. It could be a big ask. From now on, all eyes will be on him; one false move and they'll desert in search of a miracle worker. Twenty-seven National caucus members have had quite enough of hard times.