National MPs went to ground last night after speculation that the heat was building up to roll deputy leader Paula Bennett.

Though Invercargill MP Sarah Dowie confirmed that there had been some talk, POLITIK understands she later went and apologised to Leader Bill English for her comments.

The speculation centres on the party’s away caucus retreat in Tauranga at the end of next week.

POLITIK understands there will be a vote on the leadership at the meeting but that at this stage it is simply expected to be the usual pro forma endorsement of the current leadership team for the rest of this term much as Labour has already done with Jacinda Ardern.

The MP for Tauranga, Simon Bridges, stood against Paula Bennett in the deputy leadership contest in November 2016 but pulled out after he did a deal which saw him lifted up the Cabinet ranks and given the heavyweight Economic Development portfolio.

Since National lost Government last October, Bridges has been an energetic shadow leader of the House anxious to trip Labour up at any opportunity.

His colleagues have all seen this as part of a deliberate campaign on his part to eventually win the leadership.

And by some accounts, it is working.

A well-placed party source told POLITIK yesterday that the understood Bridges had the numbers by a slim majority to win the leadership, but there were still questions about him.

For a start, it is not clear who his running mate might be.


The obvious deputy would be Selwyn MP Amy Adams but whether National could afford to have two provincial MPs as its leadership team is a question that particularly Auckland MPs will be asking.

The two other potential Auckland candidates would be Nikki Kaye, who as an urban liberal would counterbalance Bridge’s social conservatism.

Alternatively, Judith Collins would make a fiery Opposition deputy leader.

But whether either could win a majority of caucus votes is debatable.

And therein lies the problem.

National does not have an obvious leadership team ready to replace English and Bennett.

There are others who could well be interested.

Jonathan Coleman has not given up on his leadership ambitions, and from among the newer MPs, Mark Mitchell and Todd Muller are also spoken of as potential leaders.

But though the situation last night was muddy it may not stay that way for long.

Once leadership speculation starts in a party, unless it can be dramatically stifled right at the beginning, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For what it was worth, Labour tended to discount the rumours.

Instead, one senior Minister said he thought it more likely something might happen around the middle of the year when Ardern was away having her baby.

However, the fact that the caucus went to ground last night was in itself revealing.

Maybe they had something to talk about.