Judith Collins appears to be now crushing her opposition within the National Party.

First she forced Nick Smith to resign and now she has done the same thing to Todd Muller.

She is removing opponents and bolstering up her supporters.

Both the Smith and Muller moves are connected to her desire to have her long time loyalist, Harete Hipango back in the caucus.

Muller, a critic of Collins,  has been forced to resign for bad mouthing Hipango to a journalist.

He almost certainly would not have been alone; you don’t have to go far in either the National caucus or party  to find Hipango critics.

However it is a former staffer that may have undone her.

She  is under fire because of allegations from the staffer that she had Parliamentary  Services pay for furniture and a TV set which were supposed to be for her electorate office but which ended up at her home.

POLITIK Judith Collins with Harete Hipango campaigning in Whanganui during last year’s election campaign.

Collins has claimed that Hipango wrongly coded the items on her expense claim and said media stories about it were a “beat up”. She had repaid the money, said Collins.

Collins’ defence of Hipango was in marked contrast to her reaction to Smith’s resignation and now Muller’s.

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“I think it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to people,” she said yesterday about Muller.

But Muller’s retirement will further underline a growing gap between National’s caucus and its rural membership.

It will also reduce farmer pressure on another Collins loyalist, her numbers man and current agricultural spokesperson, David Bennett.

Farmer organisations have been lobbying Collins for some time to have Muller appointed agricultural spokesperson in place of Bennett.

Bennett has got himself offside with farmers in part by what they claim is his low profile on major issues but also his criticism of organisations like Dairy NZ and Federated Farmers for working with the Government on major issues like climate change rather than attacking it.

In a pointed move, DairyNZ did not invite Bennett to address their 2021 Farmers’ Forum in May but did invited Muller who spoke on mental health.

The concern about the way the caucus is addressing farmers is also evident in the fact that, two prominent farmer political activists have been nominated for National’s Board.

Grant McCallum is a former board member and well known as a political commentator on farm radio shows, “the Country” and “The Muster”, and John Sunckell is an ECann councillor who has taken a leading role in the debate about irrigation and water on the Canterbury Plains.

Their nomination speaks to a frustration among farmer members of the party that they are not being heard.

That is compounded by the lack of representation within the caucus.

MPs will be in two minds about Muller’s retirement.

There will be some, obviously  including Judith Collins, who believed that he should retire after the dramatic events of last year when he precipitated a leadership challenge against Simon Bridges and then x weeks later stood down citing mental health issues.

There will be others who recognised the critical role he played in developing policy like National’s support for the Zero Carbon Act and who saw him as one of the decreasing number of liberal voices in the caucus who they believed could still contribute as a Minister.

His announcement yesterday came as a surprise to close friends and associates.

He said it had been a difficult decision “because being a Member of Parliament is a huge privilege, but it does come at a cost. I have decided that I need to prioritise my health and family and move onto the next chapter of my life.”

Pointedly he singled out his work on the Zero Carbon Bill as a  political highlight.

“At a national level, I am very proud of the work I did with James Shaw in creating bipartisan support for climate action and achieving cross-party support for the Zero Carbon Act.

“I look forward to working out my term with the National team. In the meantime, I am on pre-approved leave for the next five weeks to care for my wife, who is undergoing a significant medical procedure.”

Muller did not support the direction on climate change being pursued by the party’s current spokesperson, Stuart Smith (another Collins loyalist)  who has been echoing the views of the New Zealand Initiative, who favour using only the Emissions Trading Scheme to control emissions.

Such a proposal could bring agriculture into the ETS, a move that would be opposed by farmers.

It would also raise equity issues if the ETS component of things like petrol had to rise to much higher prices.

The disquiet within the party is not just among farmers.

There are 11 candidates standing for four vacancies on the party board. Two, Alastair Bell and  Stefan Sunde, are sitting members. The full list of candidates is; Grant McCallum, Liam Munro; Aryana Nafissi; Jannita Pilisi; Felicity Price; David Ryan; John Sunckell; Stefan Sunde and Sylvia Wood.

That number of candidates for a party board election is unusual and is an indication of the depth of feeling among members that it is time for the party to be rejuvenated.

What seems clear is that the turmoil within the caucus and the aprty may have only just begun.