How Collins crushed her own leadership

5:31 pm on 25 November 2021

Another one bites the dust.

The expectation was Judith Collins would be rolled by the next election, but it was her own actions that precipitated a pre-Christmas bloodletting.

Judith Collins

Judith Collins Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Once her replacement is elected next week, it will be the fifth National Party leader in four years.

In a late night media release, Collins accused MP and former leader Simon Bridges of "an allegation of serious misconduct relating to [his] interaction with a caucus colleague"; she demoted him and stripped him of his portfolios.

The problem was the timing of the release and questions about her claim Bridges' demotion had unanimous board support; furthermore some MPs felt it was a hit job on Bridges after he'd once again started to stir the leadership pot. Shocked and blindsided, they filed into Parliament this morning for a special caucus meeting that quickly turned into a vote of no confidence.

The incident in question happened about five years ago, during the lunch break at a caucus meeting at Premier House in Wellington.

Bridges says he was talking with a group of MPs, and at "some point" Jacqui Dean joined the conversation:

"We discussed our wives, our children," Bridges told reporters,"I can remember talking about the fact I have two boys. And I wanted a girl.

"And I engaged in some old wives' tales about that, and how to have a girl, and I entirely accept and am regretful of that day, because I acknowledge that some of what I said was clearly inappropriate."

After being spoken to by then-deputy Prime Minister, Bill English, he apologised to Dean and considered the matter closed.

He was "surprised" by Collins' "desperate move" and the "very brief, very poor process" where "he had not been informed of what the actual matter was".

But speaking to reporters after the caucus meeting he seemed pretty chipper, emphasising his lack of confidence in Collins and eager to talk about the personal growth he'd experienced since losing the leadership himself - lining himself up for another shot?

"I want to consider that over the next day or two ... I think today in particular I'm an older, possibly wiser guy than I was".

So that's a yes.

In a statement, Jacqui Dean says while Bridges' comments were not about her they were not something she had wanted to hear and they had recently played on her mind.

As for Collins, she left out the front of Parliament today with just a brief goodbye, wishing everyone well and standing by her decision to issue the media release.

No media conference, but a departing tweet saying she knew she was putting her leadership on the line by disciplining Bridges, but it was important for her to back Dean, who'd been caused "ongoing distress".

Does she regret issuing the statement?: "Never!", as she jumped into a waiting taxi.

And here we are again, a vacancy in the National Party leadership.

The list of possible contenders becomes ever shorter; partly because it's a much smaller caucus, partly because they've burned through so many in the last few years.

Realistically, Bridges and MP for Botany Chris Luxon are the ones to look out for. Former police officer Mark Mitchell has been loosely in the mix in past contests but has struggled to get the necessary support to get a bid over the line.

Bridges has been trying to rehabilitate himself since losing to Todd Muller last year: the hair, the yak, the book. He's had time to learn the brutal lessons of being opposition leader, and his combative style might be a better fit in the 2021 political Covid environment.

As discontent with Collins grew, momentum was building behind Bridges but the potential level of support he has now is not yet clear.

While there are some in the caucus who feel he was robbed of contesting last year's election and should be given another shot, these recent allegations will cast a shadow, and could make some MPs think twice about reinstalling him as leader.

Former Air New Zealand boss Chris Luxon came to Parliament with the dubious "honour" of being dubbed a future leader, and has rolled out his pre-set lines with a smile whenever it comes up (regularly). He has some experienced people advising him but is still a political novice, a virtual unknown, and could risk the same fate as Muller if thrown into the job too soon.

Shane Reti, former deputy to Collins, has not ruled out a tilt himself, but [her as interim leader sees his role now as "shepherding" the caucus through the coming week.

The vote will be held on Tuesday, which will give MPs time to digest the events of the past 24 hours, and consider the future leadership of the National Party.

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