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National’s 33 MPs have less than a week to salvage the political fortunes of their party and elect a new leader, after a successful vote of no confidence in incumbent Judith Collins.
National, which once liked its herculean strength and stability to a team of top rowers, was yesterday reduced to the unedifying spectacle of its interim leader Shane Reti answering questions about Collins’ late night “temperament”, while its powerful board issued a statement clarifying remarks from Collins, which were wrong.
The path forward is fraught, to say the least.
Next Tuesday, National’s defeat-denuded caucus, each of whom carry innumerable grudges and bad will from a fractious four years in opposition, will elect a new leader who will be required to resurrect the fortunes of what is still, statistically speaking, the natural party of government.
MPs are barred from speaking to the media about the leadership contest, but the list of candidates is assumed to include Chris Luxon, who has not ruled out a challenge, and former leadership contender Mark Mitchell.
High profile MPs Chris Bishop and Nicola Willis are understood to be contenders too; but are refusing to rule themselves in or out.
Nor is it known whether interim leader Shane Reti would want to have a tilt.
The only question given some semblance of an answer was whether Simon Bridges, long suspected of mounting a covert challenge to Collins, would once again assume the leadership.
Bridges told the media he was weighing up putting his name forward too – the only candidate to be out in the open.
The field will likely narrow before the vote, after a weekend of negotiations between contenders.
Thevacancy emerged after incumbent Collins appeared to mount a suicide mission to prevent longtime challenger Bridges from rolling her, releasing a late-night press release demoting Bridges and stripping him of all his portfolios, over a claim relating to “comments” by Bridges “to a female caucus colleague at a function a number of years ago”. The complainant was later revealed by the Herald as Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean.
National sources immediately hit the phones, briefing Collins’ gambit was not all it seemed.
The statement alleged Collins had the full support of the National board, despite no member of the board being willing to go on the record and give Collins its backing; the release implied some form of due process had been gone through to handle the complaint, a fact denied by camp Bridges and apparently upheld by caucus; and the release did not note the fact the complaint had first been made years prior and had been considered case closed.
The timing of the episode raised eyebrows too, with suspicious MPs questioning why an allegation against Bridges would resurface as speculation mounted a Bridges-led coup to oust Collins was imminent.
This sense the episode was more about Collins’ leadership than Dean’s complaint wasn’t helped by news the complainant would be revealed in a press conference with Collins the next morning.
The manoeuvre spectacularly backfired; before clocks struck midnight, MPs were calling for an immediate caucus meeting to express their concerns.
They got their wish at 9am, when an emergency caucus meeting was held. By 10am, instead of holding a press conference with Dean, Collins was living out the last moments of her leadership.
Even Todd Muller, who was no longer attending caucus meetings after a previous growling from Collins, showed up, storming through the caucus room doors late, to the surprise of many in the room.
That was not the only surprise from Muller; having previously said he would retire at the next election, he refused to comment on whether or not he’d rescind his retirement and stay on after 2023. People in the Muller circle say that he has contemplated such a move.
Bridges, Dean and Collins each spoke in the meeting.
Bridges was outraged the release from Collins had implied he had made an inappropriate mark about Dean, when in fact the remark was a lewd joke made in the presence of Dean.
Dean spoke about why she had re-laid the complaint last week, and Collins made an impassioned speech suggesting caucus this was the #MeToo moment of her leadership, and she was forced to act.
Caucus wasn’t convinced, and held a confidence vote in her leadership. She was soon dispatched and left the meeting.
A flurry of press conferences anointed Reti interim leader, and Bridges possible challenger.
Reti conceded there were concerns “about the process about the issuing of the press release last night”, but did not speak about what prompted the release.
But Reti demurred when asked about Collins’ temperament when she sent the release, saying, “I’m not going to discuss those things”.
Reti would not even say whether Dean was aware Collins was going to issue a late-night statement.
Instead of the usual valedictory press release, Collins fired off a series of tweets, saying she was essentially forced to act in the way she did.
“I didn’t ask for the allegation to be given to me,” Collins wrote.
“I knew when I was confided in by a female colleague regarding her allegation of serious misconduct against a senior colleague, that I would likely lose the leadership by taking the matter so seriously.
“If I hadn’t, then I felt I wouldn’t deserve the role,” Collins said.
But the truth of Collins’ statements was called into question in the closing hours of the political week, as MPs were making their final speeches in the chamber.
In a nervous email to National Party members, urging them to keep the faith, President Peter Goodfellow refuted key parts of Collins’ story – including, crucially, the first line of her press release saying she had acted with the “with unanimous support of the board of the National Party” to demote Bridges and strip him of his portfolios.
Not true, said Goodfellow.
The board had “unanimously supported a first step in seeking further information from the parties involved and ensure the Member of Parliament who was the subject of the allegations was given the opportunity to provide a considered response before any conclusions were drawn”.
But beyond that,”no specific penalties or actions were discussed, agreed or endorsed by the board at its meeting yesterday, beyond our support for an investigation in line with due process”.
“It was not and is not a role of the board to give approval to demote caucus members or take similar action.”
Having been stripped of the leadership, and called out by her own board, Collins retreated to the Backbencher pub across the road from Parliament which, in an ironic twist, was also enjoying the patronage of Muller, her fellow former leader.
Collins’ former challengers have already organised closed-door discussions over the weekend. The Bridges-Luxon-Mitchell trio will hold closed-door meetings this weekend with the hope of forming a unity ticket, which will be strong enough to overwhelm any changes before caucus on Tuesday. It’s believed if Bridges chooses to run, Mitchell will swing in behind him.
But for that ploy to work, the ticket would have to find some way of neutering the Bishop and Willis challenge.
If that is the case, whoever emerges from those discussions would be anointed rather than face a contest.
As for Collins, she’s refusing to walk away from her Papakura seat, and said she’ll contest the next election. Whether she’s friend of foe to the new leader, Collins isn’t going anywhere.
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