The member of the Labour party most equipped to take on the role of prime minister can’t because he already has his hands full.

Finance minister and current deputy PM Grant Robertson put an end to speculation that he’d be throwing his hat into the ring for the top job just minutes after Jacinda Ardern announced her resignation yesterday.

Both announcements have left the country – and the Labour party – reeling. With the new PM to be announced on Sunday, the contenders for the job are the No 1 question on everyone’s lips.

But even though Chris Hipkins seems to be the most likely to be the country’s new leader so far – with Kiri Allan (Ngāti Ranginui and Ngāti Tūwharetoa) and Michael Wood also up there – Grant Robertson is clearly the preferred pick over everyone else.

So why can’t he run, even if he wanted to?

Economic issues

Auckland University professor of politics Jennifer Curtin is clear on the reasoning behind Robertson’s firm no.

“It makes sense that Grant Robertson has put himself out of contention because this year's budget is going to be really important,” she told BusinessDesk. 

Curtin said there were many economic issues that were pressing on the party and it would be a “very difficult task” to be clear and considered on the economic side of things – and manage a campaign. 

“While he said that his reasoning is because he promised he would never run again, I think there is also an element of 'if we're going to win this election, we need a steady hand in that finance portfolio',” she said.

“This is going to be an election about the economy as much as it is about climate and social policy.”

That's why she thinks Hipkins is the most likely contender to get the top spot – but added that Michael Wood could also be Labour’s new leader before the year is out if Hipkins doesn’t take Labour through to victory at the polls.

“[Hipkins] will bring a different style to the campaign trail,” she said. “He's a political animal. He knows, I think, the main thing is that the party holds itself together now.

“Businesswise, it's going to be business as usual – but the business is still really tough for Labour.”

For the business world, NZ Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) principal economist Christina Leung summed up the latest opinion from the last business quarter in two words: record lows.

Add to that a lot of uncertainty on the horizon and it's not a great mix for Labour to wrestle with as it goes into election mode. 

“For the government, what's important would be to provide more certainty,” she said. 

“It’s inevitable that there's going to be uncertainty – but there are things that the government or policymakers can be doing to provide a bit more clarity around plans over the coming years so that businesses can plan around that.”

Chip off the old block

As the current minister of education, police and public service, as well as Leader of the House, Hipkins has been kept busy in recent years.

He was also the minister of the covid-19 portfolio from November 2020 to June 2022 – a position that saw him face public scrutiny daily, as well as handling hundreds of press conferences. 

But besides the strain, stress and lack of sleep that those years have probably thrown at him, it might also give him the edge he needs to convince Labour to give him the role of prime minister.

“It feels that it's going to be Chippy,” Draper Cormack Group co-founder and political commentator David Cormack told BusinessDesk today.

“There's a self-awareness to Chippy that I think holds him in a really good steer,” he said. “He's got personality.”

He said Michael Wood could be a contender but his personality didn’t “radiate out into the media sphere” like Hipkins' did.

Cormack added that a National MP had also told him that Hipkins was the contender the National party was most concerned about, from an electoral position.

Labour is the new underdog

A source close to the Labour party told BusinessDesk that Chris Hipkins was currently in the lead for the top spot – with Carmel Sepuloni most likely to be his deputy.

“Labour is kind of the underdog now,” they said. 

“People seem to be quite comfortable with Luxon as prime minister. The polls have kind of been believed, although people still have doubts about him.”

No word was out and about yet about Wood, whether he was running or, if he ran, who his deputy could be. 

Kiri Allan is also on the contender list and was regarded slightly more highly by the media than by her own colleagues, the source added.

“But the role Kiri Allan plays is interesting as well,” they said. “She’s been in the shadow a lot.”

The Māori Labour caucus is planning to meet tomorrow ahead of Sunday when the whole party will gather.

The source also said Sepuloni wasn’t so much a surprising pick, but she had been underrated. 

“If you're a minister of social development, it’s a slippery slope down to hell. She's done a pretty good job with that.”

They said they didn’t know what the relationship between the pair was like but had both been party whips together.

“They've known each other for a long time and she's not a bad choice.”

Big set of shoes

NZ Council of Trade Unions’ economist Craig Renney – and a previous political adviser to Grant Robertson – said he was “completely devastated” when he heard the news of Jacinda Ardern’s resignation yesterday.

“We’re waiting to find out who else is going to take over – now that Grant has decided not to,” he said. 

“I can understand that he's made his reasons for that clear, but it’s a lot to take in a short period of time.”

Renney, who is currently studying in cold and snowy Boston, has heard very little on the Labour rumour grapevine.

“What I can tell you is that it's a big set of shoes to fill for whoever takes over that role,” he said.

“There's an enormous amount of work in the time before the election [to get done] in order to make sure that the party is fighting fit.”