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Claire Trevett: Sir John Key slams in the bitter pill to National Party faithful

If National Party delegates gathering in Wellington had held any hopes that their former leader Sir John Key would offer up hugs and comfort for the election result, they were quickly disabused of it.

Key was a guest speaker at the party’s first big gathering since the election, and used it to thump in the home truths about the reasons for the election loss. In short: themselves.

It is usually possible to gauge how far a party has come to terms with a dire election result from the length of time it takes for someone to blame the media and their political opponents for it.

In National’s case, that was not long. It came from President Peter Goodfellow, who railed against what he saw as the “clickbait” and bias of the media. He then launched into the “temporary tyranny” of Jacinda Ardern’s Covid-19 response, her “celebrity” leadership and “tele-vangelical” addresses to the nation.

There was only a fleeting reference to the woes National had brought upon itself.

It was a speech that seemed to show Goodfellow had learned very little about the reasons 2020 brought National to its knees in the first place – or why New Zealanders had thronged to vote for Ardern.

It was a gob-smacking speech. The interesting thing is the party faithful did not seem to buy it.

There was a deathly silence from the 600-odd packed into the room while Goodfellow was going through his tirade. It is likely some quietly agreed with him, but there was no spontaneous applause or murmurs of agreement.

By way of contrast, there was applause when Collins slated things home to their own conduct, saying that while the country was focused on the Covid crisis, National was “far too focused on ourselves”.

She did not bother to offer excuses beyond that, even though there are some. In short, her focus was the problem National do have some control over: themselves.

There was even louder support for what Key had to say. His speech was not the usual platitudes and diplomatic expressions of support a former leader usually offers.

He delivered a stonker. He told them they had lost 413,800 voters, and he told them why. He told them their voters had flocked to Labour and to Act because of National’s disunity and leadership changes.

He warned them not to assume Ardern’s popularity would wane, because that was a mistake Labour made about him for almost a decade.

And he told them that Labour would spend the next three years focusing on keeping those 413,800 voters, and that it was clever enough to do just that. He set out the prospect National would lose again in 2023, 2026 and 2029.

He said the party needed a plan and a strategy: “Trust me when I tell you, hope is not a strategy.”

But the loudest applause was in response to Key’s warning to any National Party MPs leaking to the media. “If you can’t quit your leaking, quit the party.”

He and Collins did offer up some flickers of hope. Both said the party had been where it was before, and it had come back again. Both also said 2023 was not impossible, even if it looked that way.

Collins set out a checklist remarkably similar to the checklist a former president had set out after the party’s defeat in 2002. Judy Kirk had delivered a speech to the party’s conference a year later. It spoke about the party’s values, and giving people a reason to vote for them again.

It took another six years and two leadership changes but National did indeed come back.

It is perhaps because of that that the atmosphere on Saturday was not so much of despair as determination. The attendance was high – more than National had chairs for.

Nor was there any apparent air of dissatisfaction about the leadership. There was instead a sense of gratitude to Collins for stepping up when she did, rather than any blame for the result.

But in their responses to Key and Collins’ speeches, the party delegates have effectively put the caucus on notice.

If those MPs needed a more concrete expression of Key’s warning, it was sitting on their seats when they entered the room.

One of the board contenders, Rachel Bird, had put a gob-stopper lolly on each seat with a note saying even a gob-stopper would not stop her being their voice.

The MPs could well find another message in that gob-stopper.

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