At the end of the month, the National Party embarks on its annual round of regional conferences.
These will be dominated by a contested election for the party board.
But in the background will be questions about the party’s current Parliamentary leadership team which are beginning to emerge from both the party at large and the Caucus.
Simply, the leader, Simon Bridges, and his deputy, Paula Bennet, will need standout performances at the conferences to avert what could well be a leadership spill within the caucus before the party’s national conference in July.
Waiting in the wings is Papakura MP, Judith Collins, who even now, multiple sources say, has the support of just over half the caucus to take the leadership.
POLITIK has spoken to a range of National MPs and party officials on a non-attributable basis and heard pretty much the same story from most of them; something has gone wrong.
There are questions about Bridges’ political judgement and the judgments of his inner circle.
Currently, those focus on his management of the party staffer Brian Anderton and his description of him as “an emotional junior staffer.”
POLITIK has a text from one caucus member describing Bridges’ action as “appalling.”
But there is a list of charges against him which centre on his relationships with the rest of the caucus; his abrasive manner and his practice of confining decision making to a tight inner circle of MPs and advisors.
For example. there is believed to have been a recent clash between Bridges and two front bench colleagues, Judith Collins and Gerry Brownlee, over their public comments about the Christchurch shooting.
There are other concerns which relate to the fallout from the Jami-Lee Ross recorded phone conversations.
A source outside the party claims that it has either stopped releasing polls to the caucus or, more possibly, cut back on its internal polling because its leaders’ budget is believed to be nearly exhausted because of the cost of the two inquiries — into leaks and bullying – which have been called by Bridges.
There are criticisms of Bridges’ inner circle. It is said that decisions are largely being made behind closed doors by a small group —Bridges, Bennet, Todd McClay, Paul Goldsmith; the chief of staff, Jamie Gray and Chief Press Secretary, Rachel Morton.
Inevitably, when caucus members start developing grudges like this, head counting starts to take place.
And it appears it has been.
The Rodney MP, Mark Mitchell, who stood unsuccessfully for the leadership last year is said to have been quietly approaching some MPs about the possibility of running.
But the front runner appears to be Judith Collins.
MPs cannot avoid noticing her poll ratings, and she is undoubtedly the favourite of the party at large.
However, her problem has always been that she has found it difficult to win the support of her caucus colleagues.
That may be changing.
The last leadership contest showed that there was a sizable block within caucus who might be described as moderate liberals who backed Amy Adams.
Adams is unlikely to be a candidate in any new leadership spill but one of her strongest supporters, Todd Muller, could be.
Muller has a solid background within the party, and his role as Climate Change spokesperson has given him a leadership profile both within the caucus and party as he pushes for a sustainable bipartisan position on the Zero Carbon bill.
There are suggestions that he and Collins have indicated they could work together.
That would be enough to swing the previous Adams votes over to Collins.
That might be why a number of sources say there is now a majority for a Collins leadership within the caucus, but it is thought to be only a slim majority, maybe two or three votes.
That will not be enough.
National MPs are too inherently cautious to risk dividing their caucus by electing a leader with support from just over half of its MPs.
That is why, though the present situation is potentially destabilising. It is not necessarily fatal for Bridges.
For a start, National has barely moved in the polls; Labour’s gain in support has come from NZ First and the Greens.
But the preferred Prime Minister ratings will be less helpful to him.
He peaked at 12% in the One News Colmar Brunton poll last May and is now down to six per cent; Judith Collins was on two per cent last May and is now on six per cent, the same as Bridges.
Other Opposition leaders have faced challenges early in their terms; most notably Helen Clark in 1996, three years after she had won the leadership.
A delegation of Labour frontbenchers – Michael Cullen, Jim Sutton, Koro Wetere, Annette King and Phil Goff – met her to ask that she step down.
She then persuaded her deputy, David Caygill, to make way for Michael Cullen, and the challenge collapsed.
And she went on to win the 1999 election and remain in the Beehive for nine years.
Meanwhile, in National, unless Bridges can put a stop to the embryonic uprising, it is likely more support will continue to drift from Bridges to Collins.
As the party approaches its annual conference, matters can be expected to come to a head, one way or another.
POLITIK believes that It is almost inevitable that Bridges will face a challenge; perhaps an informal backroom one first, then if that fails a full caucus spill.
It is now an open question whether he will lead his party into the next election.