National Leader Simon Bridges was last night phoning caucus members trying to win enough votes to stave off a vote of no confidence this Friday.
But it is probably too late.
Multiple sources have told POLITIK that there is a majority who want him out.
If the vote succeeds, there is only one challenger for the leadership, Bay of Plenty MP, Todd Muller.
The other possible contender, Papakura MP, Judith Collins, has made it clear she will not be standing.
POLITIK understands it was Collins who first alerted Bridges to Muller’s challenge last Saturday.
One source told POLITIK she told him that there was a majority in the caucus who opposed him continuing in the leadership.
But her motive remains opaque. She appears to have somewhere between eight and twelve supporters; not enough to take the leadership of the 55 person caucus but enough to do a deal with either Bridges or Muller that could have assured them the leadership.
Was she trying to do a deal with Bridges (who privately she doesn’t rate) or was she planning to do a deal with Muller (who she does rate)?
Whatever, it appears neither Bridges nor Muller were willing to deal.
But Collins’ weekend call allowed Bridges yesterday to try and flush Muller out.
He told NewstalkZB Mike Hosking Breakfast that two National MPs would challenge for the National Party leadership and deputy leadership at the party’s caucus next Tuesday.
He would not confirm Muller or Kaye’s names, saying they deserved the dignity of announcing their own challenge.
And at 3.00 p.m. they did precisely that.
Muller phoned Party President Peter Goodfellow and distributed a letter to caucus members. Attempts to call Simon Bridges himself were unsuccessful. POLITIK was unable to confirm late last night if they had eventually made contact.
The letter said the economic challenges facing New Zealand meant “our communities and our economy” were at stake.
“It is essential National wins this election,” he said.
“I share the view of a majority of colleagues that this is not possible under the current leadership.
“I believe I am best placed to earn the trust of New Zealanders by September 19.
“I will be talking to each one of you about how we can all pull together and be deserving of New Zealanders trust.”
Later in the afternoon it became known that Bridges had decided to pull next Tuesday’s caucus meeting forward to Friday. That would be to deny Muller the chance to campaign within the caucus.
Previous National Party leadership contests have featured formalized sessions between groups of MPs and the contenders. But Bridges’ decision reduced the space for Muller; however, it appears that Muller had already made his pitch to most MPs.
Both Judith Collins and another potential challenger, Mark Mitchell, have now announced they will not contest.
The Muller camp last night was suggesting some of their support was now going to them.
Bridges has a strong core of support; people like Paula Bennett, Todd McClay, Brett Hudson, Michael Woodhouse, Louise Upston and the Christian conservatives within the caucus.
Ironically Muller is himself a practising Catholic who voted against the abortion law reform changes and the assisted dying bill. Nikki Kaye, on the other hand, is regarded as one of the most progressive social-liberals in National’s caucus.
Muller built his base up patiently through his work as Climate Change spokesperson when he visited virtually every electorate in the country ultimately convincing them that rural New Zealand, in particular, were best served by a bi-partisan Zero Carbon Bill.
Kaye was his advocate in urban New Zealand.
But by the time Bridges led National’s support for the Zero Carbon Bill in Parliament last November e the relationship between him and Muller had been strained for some months.
In early April media reports had appeared suggesting Judith Collins could soon challenge Bridges for the leadership.
Then party members at their Central North Island conference questioned his leadership, leading to a plea from party president Goodfellow to avoid any public disunity.
Collins was blamed for the unrest, and caucus members began to talk about Muller as a possible leader.
In June Bridges made a serious error and indicated the Muller talk was rattling him when he kept Muller at 41 in the caucus hierarchy during a reshuffle.
There was a quiet backlash from rural and provincial New Zealand and five weeks later Muller was promoted up to rank 17 in the caucus and given the agriculture spokesperson ship.
By February this year Bridges had got National into the position where with ACT it was polling high enough to believe it could form the next government. Together the two centre-right parties had 48% while Labour and the Greens had only 46$ and NZ First would not make it back.
But there was a vulnerability. In the preferred Prime Minister poll, Ardern rated at 42% while Bridges could manage only 11%.
And then came Covid-19 and a series of polls, some leaked while one, the Newshub Reid poll was published last Monday, and showed National at 30% and Labour on an astonishing 56%. Those results would see 17 National MPs lose their seats.
But as the reported conversation between Collins and Bridges last weekend shows, the planning to depose him seems to have been in the works for more than this week.
Four weeks ago a National MP and ally of Muller, was openly critical of Bridges at an online Wellignton business meeting. Increasingly MPs were willing to admit their leader was a concern.
In many ways, it was the same old story – he couldn’t connect with the public; he was tone-deaf; he excluded many MPs from the decision-making process, and he was too abrasive.
Muller, on the other hand, is the “Mr Nice Guy” of the National caucus and though he is virtually unknown in urban New Zealand, he has a big following in provincial and rural New Zealand.
Whereas Bridges comes from the right of the party, Muller is a centrist with an aversion to hardline doctrinaire politics.
That approach may see the return of Amy Adams, who is reported to be reconsidering her retirement this election if Muller gets the leadership.
But first Muller has to win; and though last night the odds seemed to favour that, Bridges is a tough politician and will be fighting to the last.