National's Agriculture spokesperson Todd Muller and Leader, Simon Bridges, on the sidelines of the party's Blue Greens Forum in Nelson in February.

Simon Bridges now has to survive the next two or possibly three weeks with his Caucus, and he may then stagger on as National leader to the election.

Last night’s disastrous Newshub poll was the first  “trigger” that those who want to roll him as leader say they need. There is another poll expected later in the week; if that confirms last night’s 55.6 – 30 split, then Bridges will find it hard to stay.

POLITIK believes that at present neither Bridges nor any of his rivals have a clear majority within the National Caucus.

That level of division is dangerous, and National will not want a bloodbath over the leadership.

As a party, it simply doesn’t like to do things that way.

That is why the Caucus is unusually silent at the moment. Obviously, they are talking. The potential challengers; Judith Collins, Todd Muller and Mark  Mitchell, were all talking to MPs over the weekend.

They knew from their own Curia polls that things were bad so last night’s poll would not have been unexpected.

Coupled with a spreadsheet that has been doing the rounds of the Caucus, the message from the poll is obvious. With Labour on 56% and National on 30%; National would have 38 seats which would mean losing 17 seats, and those 17 could include some of the party’s most promising MPs.

Changing some of the spread sheet’s wilder assumptions, such as predicting that Bridges would lose his Tauranga seat would see National back with 32 electorate MPs and six list MPs.

The MPs predicted to lose either their seats or their current position on the list would be Melissa Lee, Chris Bishop, Anne Tolley, Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi, Tim Macindoe, Brett Hudson, Jian Yang, Parmjeet Parmar, Jo Hayes, Andrew Falloon, Harete Hipango, Lawrence Yule, Maureen Pugh, Nicola Willis and Paulo Garcia.

The question the Caucus must now ask itself is whether anybody else could do any better.

POLITIK understands that the answer to that is complicated by the fact that no-one (including Bridges) can command a clear majority within the Caucus at present.

There are four possible candidates: Simon Bridges; Judith Collins; Todd Muller and Mark Mitchell.

A reasonable calculation would put Bridges and Muller with two-thirds of the Caucus between them but less than five votes apart. Collins would have the bulk of the remainder with Mitchell less than five votes.

Things will change, particularly if Thursday’s poll has the party at less than 35%.

Though Collins would seem to have less support than either Bridges or Muller, in many ways, she holds a trump card.

Not only is she the only other MP to feature on the preferred Prime Minister poll but if the victor requires her votes, then she would be in a position to name her price; Deputy Leader? Finance spokesperson?

This uncertainty is not a situation any political party wants when it is behind in the polls and is four months out from an election.

Regardless of what they do, the perception will be that they are divided. (And the truth is, they are)

Though Muller is a social conservative on some moral issues and has voted in the same side as Bridges on conscience votes, he is generally identified within the party as a liberal and is close to the party’s leading liberal, Nikki Kaye. She is a potential deputy under Muller.

Bridges is a social conservative and enjoys the support of the party’s conservative Christians who were identified by Amy Adams during the abortion law reform debate.

Muller has a deep base within the rural and provincial parts of the party – but is hardly known in urban New Zealand,

In recent weeks he has been subtly, but none the less, clearly,  distinguishing himself from Bridges.

Speaking last Wednesday in the General debate, he said: “ I do need to add to that that our family and, indeed, many families across this country do acknowledge the job well done of this Government, of the health department and its senior officials and health workers, and of an Opposition which asked the right questions through the process.

“It has been a collective achievement that we are all rightly proud of.”

Muller judged the mood of the country right.

Last night’s poll showed that 91.6 per cent of the country thought the Government made the right call to put the country into Level Four lockdown for four weeks.

That contrasts with what Bridges’ critics say is his inability to get the tone of his messaging right when he speaks.

It is going to be tough for Bridges to prevail in this climate.

Not only does over half the Caucus seem to prefer another leader, but he also has his critics outside the Caucus at senior levels within the party and among former leading members of the Key/English Government.

National has no caucus today but one more in May next week and then four in June. However, no-one will want this to drag on till the end of June.

The best-case scenario would be if either Bridges or a contender can demonstrate that they have a substantial majority of the Caucus behind them and that the matter is resolved without a caucus vote.

That would mean horse-trading and noting the total silence from the Caucus that would appear to be what is going on right now.05

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