Don Brash will get ACT above 10 percent, re-energising the right of New Zealand politics - or so the story goes. Some aren't so sure, including some in National
So, there are two ways of looking at the ACT overhaul. It's either a grand National plot or National are the biggest losers at the end of this week. I tend towards the latter. But what do you think?
Some see the arrival of Don Brash as ACT leader as a right-wing strategy to create, in 2011-2014, the most right-wing government the country has seen since Ruth Richardson was a Budgetary mother. Phil Goff says ACT would drag National further right. (If I was uncharitable, I might add, as far right as the fourth Labour government when Goff was a minister!). Winston Peters describes the Brash coup as "its takeover of the ACT party in time to organise its election campaign". The result will be a return to "failed policies that started to cripple New Zealand in the 80s and 90s".
Much of which may or may not turn out to be true, depending on how New Zealanders vote come November.
The other view suggests that National will be gutted this weekend. It now has an economist purist to its right; and not just any economic purist, but the very one John Key deposed so as to move National back to the centre and thereby make the party electable again.
Hide understood politics; Brash understands economics.
Brash - especially in a race with Peters and Hone Harawira - is likely to raise race relations again (sob), an issue Key has tried to defuse. He will push on raising the age of super eligbility, abolishing free doctor's visits, the NZ Super Fund and the minimum wage, opening DOC land up to mining, and putting interest back on student loans, and several other issues that National thought it had nicely squared away.
Most of all, Brash will be ruthless on urging more immediate cuts to the deficit (although that may be something National will be happy to respond to). In other words, he won't be worried about frightening the horses, otherwise known as the centre votes Key has worked so hard to tie down. Brash gives Labour something to kick against, giving them hope, and will force National to issue and repeat a bunch of denials that otherwise would have been taken as read.
One of the biggest worries for National's strategists will be whether they will be forced to choose between ACT and the Maori Party. Ask yourself, how can the Maori Party, even with Tariana Turia at her most pragmatic, say it will go into a coalition arrangement with the man who delivered the Orewa speech, questioning whether Maori can even call themselves Maori these days?
Key made efforts to keep Rodney Hide in charge of ACT when the Heather Roy challenge came. He has dominated the centre and right of New Zealand politics for so long. But this he could not control. Brash and his backers, some of whom I've spoken to this week, dismiss Key as a "smile and wave man" who doesn't adhere to true National principles. Closer to the truth is simply that Key has created a National party that's true to the legacy of Sir Keith Holyoake, rather than that of Ruth Richardson.
But Brash and his backers will not stay on message as Hide did, and may even expose cracks between National's centre and right-wing. It will be a test of party discipline that Key hasn't had to face before.
It also complicates things in Epsom. Instead of the nice, sweetheart deal with Hide, everyone now has to go back to square one. If Brash keeps predicting 10-15% for ACT, National voters in Epsom, weary as they are of strategic voting, will rightly ask, 'why should we vote Banks rather than our own candidate'? As for ACT, it can hardly predict double digits then expect a soft deal. And National risk looking either cynical or undermining of ACT if they don't front their own man.
And as popular as John Banks is in Epsom, up against a strong National candidate it might not be as clear cut as some expect.
Indeed, the entire 'Brash as saviour of the right' narrative might not be quite that clear and clean. Just because you can succeed, to a point, with a big machine and popular brand doesn't mean you can do it with a smaller, niche brand. And let's not forget, National barely topped 20 percent the election before he swept into the leadership. Anyone would have improved National's polling after 2002; indeed, I was interested to hear Barry Gustafson on RNZ this morning guessing that a Bill English-led National party would have won in 2005.
Let's not forget that it was that 2002 election in which ACT got its best ever election result - 7.1 percent. And that was when National was on its knees. So is double digits really that likely? Why is everyone assuming that there's such potential to grow the total right vote? We're more likely to see ACT cannibalise some of National's vote and then hit a wall, especially when you add in Brash's historical problem with women voters and his "trust issues".
I can't resist adding this link, just to remember the problems that Brash faced in 2005.
Then there's the reality that the ACT caucus haven't suddenly turned from quirky individualists into a well-disciplined fighting unit just because they have a new general. Brash still has an idiosyncratic team to lead, and has to decide pretty quick whether John Boscawen remains deputy, whether Heather Roy is re-promoted, or what... all without ruffling egos and National.
Oh yes, the only thing we can be sure of is that there's a greater level of uncertainty around this year's election than there's been for a long time.