Chris Hipkins set to become next prime minister of New Zealand

A new prime minister for New Zealand has been chosen by the Labour party after the shock resignation of Jacinda Ardern on Thursday.

Chris Hipkins – the minister for education and policing, and one of the primary architects of the Covid response – was nominated uncontested by the party caucus on Saturday morning, after efforts by senior MPs to achieve consensus and secure a smooth transition in Ardern’s wake. The caucus is due to formally endorse his selection on Sunday.

Taking on the prime ministership would be “the biggest responsibility and the biggest privilege of my life”, Hipkins said on Saturday, speaking to reporters on parliament’s steps in his first appearance since the nomination. “The weight of that responsibility is still sinking in.”

An experienced MP with a ruthless streak in the debating chamber and an intimate knowledge of the machinery of government, Hipkins will face perhaps the biggest challenge of his political career: persuading New Zealanders to grant Labour another term in government, without Ardern’s star power at the helm.

Hipkins paid tribute to his predecessor, saying she had been “an incredible prime minister” who had “provided calm, stable, reassuring leadership, which I hope to continue to do”.

He also spoke on some of the challenges Ardern had faced including threats and abuse, particularly in relation to the Covid pandemic. “There has been an escalation in vitriol, and I want to acknowledge that some politicians have been the subject of that more than others,” he said. “Our current prime minister Jacinda Ardern has absolutely been on the receiving end of some absolutely intolerable and unacceptable behaviour.”

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Around New Zealand, Hipkins, 44, will be best known as the face and primary implementer of the Covid elimination strategy, a role that saw him taking the podium next to Ardern for weekly updates as the pandemic evolved.

That background may help and hinder him: it gave him a significant profile and made him a household name, but also gives him immediate associations with a chapter many New Zealanders are now hoping to put behind them, and which has galvanised a small, radical and often vitriolic core of anti-vaccine opponents.

While his profile is lower than Ardern’s, the MP has had a few moments of international virality.

In one Covid-era gaffe, he became a meme after encouraging New Zealanders to “go outside and spread their legs” in a national announcement.

Last year, he bemused internet observers with a birthday cake constructed entirely of sausage rolls.

The question of Hipkins’ deputy has not yet been decided – a vote will take place on Sunday. Hipkins would not comment on whether he would choose a woman to serve alongside him, except to say: “For the first time in New Zealand’s history, we have a gender balanced parliament. Women are going to occupy senior roles in our parliament. That is good, that is fantastic, and we should be proud of that as a country.”

A career politician who has held office since 2008, Hipkins was the safest choice for Labour. Of the candidates considered for the role, he is most capable of stepping immediately into the work of governance and carrying the government’s legislative agenda through to the October election.

Over the last term, as well as meaty portfolios in education, Covid response and policing, he has been leader of the house and public service minister, two wonky roles that are deeply immersed in the nuts and bolts of governance and provide an intimate knowledge of the political process.

Speaking to the Guardian in 2021, he said one of his political strengths was “Understanding how the machinery of government operates, which is something that I’ve developed over about 20 years.

“I’ve watched people come into politics from outside, very talented people, very knowledgable, with a lot of subject matter expertise – but they’ve struggled to get the machinery of government to do what they wanted to do. And I like to think that I’ve managed to – I’m not perfect – but that I’ve managed to kind of figure that out.”

While that makes him well-equipped to carry Labour’s last sets of reforms through this term, his larger battle will be on the campaign trail. Curia polling released on Friday – drawn from before Ardern’s resignation – placed her party at 32%, compared with National’s 37%. Right- and leftwing coalition partners Act and the Greens were sitting at 11% apiece.

With an election approaching on 14 October, Hipkins faces a steep road ahead – to transform Labour’s fortunes and gather the support to form a new government.

Asked by reporters “Can you win the election?” Hipkins responded simply: “Yes.”