The National Party leadership crisis took new twists last night with suggestions the party may try and avoid a leadership ballot while at the same time there are more questions about the role played in the crisis by the party’s Board and President.
Party President Peter Goodfellow has been drawn into the Judith Collins saga with questions about an email he sent to party members yesterday afternoon.
The email contests Judith Collins claim that her demotion of Simon bridges had the unanimous support of the party board.
In effect, it calls her a liar.
The statement said that in considering the matter, the Board had unanimously supported a first step in seeking further information from the parties involved and to “ensure that 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 another caucus source told POLITIK that the Board had told Collins to deal with the matter herself because it was a matter of caucus discipline, and that was not the responsibility of the Board.
It would be unusual for the leader of the National Party to seek board approval for the allocation of caucus portfolios.
Neither Goodfellow’s email nor the caucus source endorsed Collins’ claim that she had the Board’s unanimous support for the demotion.
At best, she had their support to manage a disciplinary process against Bridges.
But the source described Goodfellow’s email as a “retrospective revision”.
The facts of Bridges offence were reasonably straightforward.
At a lunch break during an all-day caucus in 2016, in conversation with MPs Jami-Lee Ross and Todd McClay, he had made vulgar comments on how to perform sexually in order to conceive a daughter.
The comments were heard by MP Jacqui Dean, who later complained to deputy-leader Bill English, who asked Bridges to apologise to her, which he did.
There are a number of different versions of what happened next, but it seems that in another conversation within the last fortnight involving a group of MPs from at least two Parliamentary parties, Dean repeated the story.
That then came to Judith Collins’ attention.
But yesterday, her victim, Simon Bridges, had his own questions about Goodfellow and the National Party board and the role they had played in the events of the past 24 hours.
“It has been a very difficult period, and they’ve had very difficult issues,” he said.
“I think it is true that in terms of the president, we’ve repeated mistakes a number of times.
“At the end of the day, I am not today the leader of the National Party, and I think the new leader of the National Party will have to think through how they deal with the board and the current president.”
One question the Board will need to consider is the future of Judith Collins.
She has said she would stand again for her Papakura electorate, but the New Zealand political convention is that deposed leaders leave Parliament within a few years of their defeat.
All of National’s leaders since 1990 have stayed on for less than 12 months after their defeat, with the exception of Bill English in 2003 and Simon bridges in 2020.
English subsequently left less than six months after he regained the leadership and then lost the 2017 election.
The Board can subtly persuade Collins not to stand, or they can refuse her pre-selection approval.
There will be pressure on them from many in caucus to do that.
Bridges indicated yesterday that he might be one likely to put that pressure on.
“I’ve made it clear this morning both in my brief comments to the media really and elsewhere that I didn’t have confidence in Judith Collins,” he said.
“I was, let’s put it euphemistically, very unhappy with the press release last night. And in the end, those are matters for her.”
On the other hand, he has indicated he may stand for the leadership.
“I’m going to consider it,” he said.
“I do think I’m older and a bit wiser.
“I do think I have a sense of what New Zealand needs at this time.
“I’m going to think that through.”
There is no formal word yet from Christopher Luxon or Mark Mitchell as to whether they will stand, but there is widespread speculation that neither has denied that they will.
And POLITIK understands Christopher Bishop has been making soundings as to whether he should stand.
What comes through in numerous conversations with party members and MPs is that they would prefer to avoid a divisive vote next Tuesday when they are scheduled to resolve the matter.
Sitting in the background supporting this view are some of the party heavyweights like Sir John Key and Stephen Joyce.
They may be proposing a brokered deal such as saw Key take over the leadership from Don Brash in 2006 and which saw Gerry Brownlee removed as deputy leader and Key’s main leadership rival, Bill English, made deputy and finance spokesperson.
Bridges reluctance to formally announce his candidacy may reflect his belief that it will be a brokered contest rather than a caucus vote.
However the leadership plays out, it would seem likely to be a contest between Bridges and Luxon, with the loser becoming finance spokesperson.
New candidates for the front bench would include Nicola Willis, Erica Stanford and Chris Bishop. Shane Reti would remain.
There are other issues to be addressed, such as the future of Todd Muller.
There will be many within the caucus and, more particularly, the party who will feel he got a raw deal from Collins when he was asked not to attend caucus meetings because he was alleged to be leaking to POLITIK which he was not.
His expertise on climate change and the agriculture sector would be useful as the party’s rural base begin their deliberations on a methane pricing mechanism.
It would not be surprising if the leadership was wrapped up by the end of the weekend. Tuesday’s caucus would then become a celebration of the new leadership team and an attempt by the party to open a new chapter.