With polling once again showing support for National static, leader Judith Collins has circled the wagons, promoted her loyalists, sacked one of her potential leadership rivals and cut the wings off another.
Collins’ caucus reshuffle on Saturday was all about her.
But her big hit, the sacking of Chris Bishop as shadow leader of the House was, to use a phrase much loved by would-be Machiavellian MPs, “untidy”.
The tooing and froing over whether or how Parliament should resume which Bishop was negotiating got confused with the National Party’s internal politicking.
The end result is that National might realise they have ended up with a less than ideal situation.
By rejecting the idea of a virtual Parliament with no live MPs , they now have a hybrid model but that has left the future of Select Committees grilling Covid Ministers in doubt.
Because National has now got agreement to a conventional Question Time in the House, it may be that the Government (who control these things) will ask the Select Committees to get back to their real role of deliberating on legislation.
The complex manoeuvres began last Monday after it was announced Parliament would be suspended for the week because of Covid.
National Leader Judith Collins issued a press statement that afternoon saying: “This suspension must not continue beyond this week. Parliament is essential, and we need to find ways for the Opposition to meaningfully hold the Government to account.”
On Tuesday, Parliament’s Business Committee, which decides when Parliament will sit and what it will do when it does, met and set up a sub-committee of the Speaker, the Leader of the House, Chris Hipkins and the Shadow Leader of the House, Chris Bishop to draw up a plan to enable Parliament to sit this week — as requested by Collins.
They came up with a proposal for a virtual Parliament with only the Speaker and a Minister in the Chamber itself. The Clerk of the House would also be present.
(That is the minimum required for any Parliamentary session to be legal)
Other MPs would participate via Zoom as they have been doing all week on Select Committees.
The sub-Committee also proposed a revamped Question Time incorporating some of the elements of the daily Question Time along with an innovation this Parliament, which has allowed a session of extended (five minutes) questions to Ministers.
A memo prepared by the sub-committee says there would be a smaller number of questions, with longer time for discussion and supplementary questions allocated to each party with National getting three; Labour, two; ACT, 1 per day and the Greens 2 per week and Te Paati Maori, one per week.
The proposal also drew on what has been happening at the Select Committees over the past week, where the bulk of the questions have been allocated to National MPs and where the questioning has been more substantive than is usual at Parliament’s Question Time.
But while Bishop and the sub-committee were developing this proposal, Collins had begun to take another tack.
The subcommittee’s proposals had been provided to the Business Committee on Thursday.
MPs on the Committee (and National had three, including one of Collins’ close allies, Maureen Pugh) would undoubtedly have ensured that Collins saw the proposal Bishop had been a party to.
Early on Friday afternoon, Collins issued a statement that did not respond to the proposal to call Parliament together at all but instead called for the reinstatement of the Epidemic Response Committee.
This was established during the first Level Four lockdown last April to be a substitute for both the Chamber and Select Committees.
It was chaired by then-Opposition Leader Simon Bridges and was televised.
Plainly if it were reinstated it would provide a national platform for Collins.
The Business Committee then met that evening. Bishop, along with the deputy Shadow Leader, Michael Woodhouse and Pugh, represented National.
To the surprise of members from other parties, Woodhouse, rather than Bishop, announced that National would not agree to the proposals that Bishop had been a party to drawing up.
One MP there said it was a very public humiliation of Bishop.
On Friday night, a number of National MPs then began to run a social media post claiming that: “Labour doesn’t want Parliament to sit next week even though every day the PM holds a press conference in Parliament’s theatre full of media personnel.”
This was the first indication that National was now wanting MPs in the Chamber.
At 9.00 a.m. on Saturday, Collins issued a press release announcing that she had fired Bishop as Shadow leader of the Hosue and replaced him with Woodhouse and that her loyal supporter, Simeon Brown, would be deputy.
Negotiations then continued with Woodhouse through Saturday to get the compromise that was unveiled to MPs last night.
Unlike Bishop’s proposal, it allowed MPs in the Chamber; (In addition to the Speaker) “no more than five members of the Labour Party, three members of the National Party and one member each from the Green Party and Act New Zealand in the Chamber at one time.”
In a memo last night to MPs, Speaker Trevor Mallard said Te Paati Māori had indicated that its members would not attend the House at Alert Level Four.
The House also reverts to the usual Question Time style. The proposal to have extended questions and responses have been dropped.
Mallard’s memo also warned members that MPs must wear masks at all times except when they were speaking.
And he said masks should not display party slogans or logos.
So, to get three MPs into the Chamber, National has given up the proposal for extended questions and answers and possibly risked the continuation of the special Select Committees grilling Covid Ministers and officials.
But Collins critics within the National Party believe that the negotiations over the way Parliament should run next week were not so much about the democratic process as another of her complex manoeuvres to disarm an opponent.
The NZ Herald reported last Thursday that Collins “completely lost it” at Bishop during a recent caucus meeting over his Opposition to the party’s vote against the Gay Conversion Therapy Bill.
Another source told the Herald her tirade was “f***ing ballistic”.
The Gay Conversion Therapy decision showed that Collins had thrown in her lot with the evangelical conservatives in her caucus.
Some (Simeon Brown, Harete Hipango) are already some of her most loyal supporters.
But the caucus is clearly divided.
There is a small liberal faction whose most prominent members are Bishop, Nicola Willis and Erica Stanford, and they were the losers in the reshuffle.
Bishop is now simply the Covid spokesperson, while Willis lost her associate economic development spokespersonship.
All this comes as the latest Morgan poll shows National has slumped back to its election night rating of 25 per cent.
What will worry National’s strategists is that though Labour has lost just over 20 per cent of its election vote and is now down from 50 per cent to 39.5, those voters have gone to ACT and the Greens.
Now Bishop will appear a martyr to many liberal members of the party.
National’s internal turmoil looks set to continue.