National Leader Judith Collins with the party board at the party's annual conference in August. Party President, Peter Goodfellow is on the right.

In what is being seen from within the National Party as a desperate attempt to save her leadership National Leader Judith Collins last night “demoted” Simon Bridges over an alleged “incident” with a caucus colleague “a number of years ago.”

One senior National MP told POLITIK this could be the trigger that sparked a challenge to her leadership.

But the Caucus is in no position to act precipitously because there is no real agreement on who should replace her.

And it is clear that she will be ruthless in defending her position.

Once again, as she did with Nick Smith, she has claimed that a caucus member “intimidated” somebody and made them feel “unsafe”.

Caucus colleagues of Bridges were last night astonished at her claim.

The incident is said to have happened in 2017, and the alleged victim was Jacqui Dean but National MPs from that year seem to know nothing about it.

POLITIK has spoken to two key members of National’s 2017 caucus, and both said they had no knowledge of what Collins was talking about.

Another MP who was in the Caucus in 2017 said Bridges could be a “belligerent shit” but had never seen him cross any boundaries with women.

Collins said she had made the decision to demote Bridges “with (the) unanimous support of the board of the National Party.”

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It is unclear what that support amounted to since caucus disciplinary matters are the responsibility of the leader, and the Caucus jealously guards that independence from its board.

There is nothing in National’s constitution that would require that the leader gain the support of the board over any caucus disciplinary matter.

“Having been made aware of the seriousness of the complaint for the first time and the ongoing distress this has caused the complainant, I was left with no option but to immediately demote Simon Bridges and relieve him of his portfolio responsibilities,” Collins said in a statement issued at 9.24 last night.

“This decision has not been made lightly. However, the seriousness of the situation demands a swift and decisive response.

“Under my leadership, the National Party will not tolerate harassment and intimidation of any person.

“Members of Parliament and staff should be able to conduct their duties at all times without feeling unsafe or intimidated, and all deserve to be treated with absolute respect by their colleagues in all situations.”

POLITIK understands Collins tried to talk to Bridges about the matter earlier in the day, but he dismissed her attempt.

Collins claims have drawn a sharp reaction from within the party and from former caucus members.

One former Minister described her actions as those of a “desperate despot.” However, her time as leader has been marked by her tough disciplinary actions with colleagues.

She disposed of former leader Todd Muller by claiming that he had been leaking caucus secrets.

POLITIK was named in coverage sympathetic to Collins as the recipient of some of those leaks, which was false.

She forced Nick Smith to resign by claiming the media were about to publish a story about him intimidating staff. No such story appeared though it was confirmed Parliamentary Services were investigating a complaint from a former staff member in his office.

POLITIK is also aware of another senior National MP who has received an email from Collins suggesting they too could follow Smith if they criticised her leadership.

On the pro-Collins website, BFD, formerly “Whaleoil”, last night her old ally Cameron Slater was attacking Bridges.

“He’s a sanctimonious hypocrite and creep; he deserves this after what he did to Jami-lee Ross,” Slater wrote.

And on Facebook, he wrote: “Just think if Bill English has dealt with it at the time, Bridges wouldn’t have become leader, we might not have had leadership changes so close to the election, and Jacinda might not be a dictator like she is today.”

(Bridges defeated Collins for the leadership in 2018)

Collins’ move has come amidst ongoing speculation about how long she could last as leader.

Signals from the Caucus have been contradictory.

One MP told POLITIK last week they didn’t expect any challenge until the first half of next year.

But another, in an email last week to a party official, said, “I really do hope (and, for what it’s worth, expect) that better days lie ahead shortly.”

What seems a given is that most of the Caucus believe she cannot lead them into the next election.

It seemed they wanted to wait until one of the contenders to replace her; Bridges or Christopher Luxon or an outside chance, Chris Bishop, could demonstrate enough support to gain a conclusive victory within the Caucus.

They may not have that luxury now. Everything that happened last night can only have boosted Labour.

National’s former pollster and longtime party member David Farrar captured that with a tweet: “A delighted @jacindaardern and @NZClarke would like to thank the National Party for their very thoughtful wedding present. It exceeded their most optimistic expectations.”

So that will be the first task for the Caucus today; to assess the damage.

If they conclude that it is serious, they will have little choice but to act now. Parliament rose last night until December 7. National has really only got 12 days to sort out whether stick with Judith or replace her.