Today the National party caucus disposes of Maurice Williamson, its leader has said. The party board is to do its bit on membership on Thursday.
The first question this messy affair raises is: What damage suspending or expelling Williamson will do? The party’s answer: less than leaving him in.
Leaving him in risks more such episodes as his rock-throwing on conference eve. Counselling by present and past grandees did not work before the conference so cannot be counted on to work now.
While he is inside the party, his criticisms make news. Outside the party, unless he were to build up a movement, as Winston Peters did in 1992, he would be a curiosity but not news.
The short-term risk is that, like Peters, he might force and win a by-election.
Possibly: Pakuranga was a maverick seat in the 1970s and 1980s, when its mortgage-belt dwellers were hurting. But the mortgage-belt is doing OK. The National party is getting itself together. It might just turn a by-election into a show of its new organisation and of the new determination evident at the conference.
Which leads to a second question. Why did the party and its leader turn on him with such ferocity? After all, plenty of those who dumped on Williamson share his doubts. There is still much muttering abroad that English has a year to prove himself.
The answer is that behind the scenes the party is on the mend. Its conference was the most united I can remember since Sir Robert Muldoon drove wedges into it in 1978 by departing from party principles. The party has restructured. The policy foundations laid over the past six months resonate with most of the members.
The party knows it is still on the floor in the polls. It didn’t need to be told yet again. It now wants to focus on building. Williamson was ear-splittingly out of synch. Hence the reaction.
Had Bill English not given voice to that fury, he would have undone his own effective, jaw-jutting speech to the conference which had even the sceptics among his MP waxing lyrical.
But he did more than give voice to others’ anger. He displayed icy fury of his own — the same fury that did in New Zealand First’s Neil Kirton when he crossed English once too often in coalition days in 1997.
Now he has to carry through. That is the third big question in the Williamson mess: Can he?
This is in two parts. The easy part — or it should be — is to hold his ground over Williamson. If he doesn’t, or if he miscalculates at any point, his leadership will be effectively over.
The harder part is to get the party off the opinion poll floor, to turn the new mood of forward-looking unity and determination into votes. It is all very well to wow a conference, issue policy discussion papers and ride some opportunistic issues. English has yet to connect with the public.
Take the seabed/foreshore excitement. English chants a mantra: “one standard of citizenship” instead of “separatism”. It sounds rousing but what does it mean and how does it fit with his aspirations to represent a broad base of those one-standard citizens?
In his bids for television coverage, English is growing wild. He said to the conference: “National opposes the Supreme Court because Helen Clark and Margaret Wilson are setting that up to turn the Treaty of Waitangi into a constitution that rules every facet of our lives.”
Really? As former president Geoff Thompson, no radical, pointed out to a Blue Greens breakfast, the present senior judges of the Appeal Court, who would staff the Supreme Court, are mostly a conservative lot — not the sort to fashion a “constitution” on legal whims and grandiose ambitions.
English’s explanation: 20 years of legislation referring to Treaty “principles” has generated a momentum in the court’s decisions which cumulatively are giving the Treaty quasi-constitutional status.
English is on securer ground promising to legislate to declare the foreshore and seabed Crown-owned. Even Wilson agrees it should be. So does the great majority of voters.
But beyond the one-liner, then what? I asked him if his promise applied also to the Redcliffs Riviera in Christchurch. Yes, he said, jaw jutting.
But that would mean expropriating wealthy home-owners who have blocked off people from exercising the very rights English wants to secure against “separatist” Maori. How does that square with the centrality of property rights in National party belief?
And do Maori not have such rights? The Maori Michelle Boag brought into the party in 2001 with fanfare were distinguished by a deafening absence at English’s conference. Citizenship of the National party, it seems, might entail a touch of separatism.
This is English’s challenge. His generalised pronouncements are backed by the party and so are some of his specifics. The party has turned a corner and Williamson is paying the price for missing the turning.
But sometimes English’s general and his specifics don’t marry. That would have been a more useful point for Williamson to make.