Fran O’Sullivan: Judith Collins may yet have last laugh on Simon Bridges

OPINION:

It’s no accident that Judith Collins reached for the nuclear option on Wednesdaynight to thwart an imminent challenge that would have paved the way for Simon Bridges to become National’s leader.

Bridges wasn’t directly fronting the campaign to unseat Collins, although he was certainly stoking uncertainty by the manner in which he was engaging with TV journalists.

Others — including Mark Mitchell, who is a glue man within caucus and personable enough to bridge the factions — were sniffing out how to broker a dream team to lead National and just wanted to get on with it.

This was the upshot of repeated abysmal showings in the political polls. All the key players knew it was only a matter of time before the plug would be pulled on Collins.

But no one expected Collins herself to opt for Armageddon. Not even the hapless MP Jacqui Dean, who was unwittingly brought into a hit job that went badly wrong.

Bridges and Mitchell were themselves dining together on Wednesday evening when Collins’ statement alleging serious misconduct by Bridges dropped. So serious was the allegation against him said to be by Collins, that she immediately stripped him of his portfolios and demoted him to the back benches.

Until that point, Bridges had been said to have the momentum and the numbers. The basic deal: Bridges to resume the leadership; Erica Stanford as deputy leader; and Christopher Luxon in the powerful finance portfolio.

The six or seven MPs who are now being talked about as potential leadership candidates would inevitably have been on the front bench. These are the likes of Chris Bishop, Nicola Willis, Shane Reti and Mitchell himself.

There was not only the bones of a cross-factional deal but also one that showcased National’s most vigorous talent.

Collins’ ruthless move caught Bridges on the back foot.

Nick Smith and Todd Muller had already been stitched up and pushed out of their political careers. Bishop had been demoted.

But Wednesday night was the limit. The National caucus finally found the cojones to stand up to their leader and moved her out of the leadership. They were not going to let Bridges be pushed out. Particularly as the allegations were — not to put too finea point on it — a complete stretch.

But Collins is a wily and experienced politician. While she contends she knew her allegation could end up in her own unseating, her stratagem has changed the dynamics of the leadership race as she would have intended.

Bridges no longer has the upper hand.

Others — particularly Chris Luxon — are now in the play for the leadership. Younger MPs like Bishop and Willis also fancy their chances in a generational play. Demonstrating ambition by entering a race, even if the MP doesn’t win first time up, usually results in better placement and marks apolitician out as confident enough in their own abilities to one day take on a leadership role.

It could still go Bridges’ way. But there will have to be careful and painstaking negotiations which take account of just how the power blocs are balanced and also the conflict between the conservative and liberal wings of the caucus.

Is it simply enough for Bridges to say he is older and wiser since his first period as leader?

What would he bring to the role a second time round? He is a strong performer in Parliament and has bags of energy, but what does he stand for and what political buttons will he push to get National out of its quagmire?

The National MPs have to consider this carefully.

Luxon has the advantage of being a new broom. But he is inexperienced.

On the other hand, he is (so far) untarnished by the rough and tumble of politics.

He has deliberately developed a strong relationship with Collins since coming into Parliament, and is now being urged by her to make a run for the top job.

If Luxon is to take on that job he will have to restrain himself from coming across as knowing he is the smartest guy in the room and show a more relatable and humble side of himself.

He will haveto develop listening skills and patience.

There is an assumption that he is “John Key Mk II” simply because he entered politics straight from a top corporate career like Key.

Key is a mentor and was also a member of the Air New Zealand board when Luxon was CEO.

But Key is a political natural. That is a big difference.

As for Collins, her future was sealed when Key made his own impactful entry into the debate over NZ’s Covid responses.

It showed up just how lame her leadership had become.

Collins could have gone gracefully from the top job.

Business support for Collins had waned, with concerns she had lost sight of the issues that matter to New Zealand, and that her negativity was not appealing to the wider electorate.

If she had played the game, National would have ultimately squared her with a Dameship, post-political roles on boards, maybe an ambassadorship.

Now the leadership is all down to the deal-making.

That basic deal that Bridges had in the bag could yet be recalibrated with Luxon as leader, Willis as deputy and Bridges in finance.

It is a case of “square or be squared”.

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