Politics

Claire Trevett: Christopher Luxon and Simon Bridges are still the top contenders for National’s leadership. Can they cut a deal?

OPINION:

National’s now interim leader Shane Reti delivered the understatement of the year when he described Thursday as “not our best day”.

The events leading up to it and the rolling of Judith Collins was the most dramatic 24 hours in the National Party since Jami Lee Ross’ expulsion from the caucus – and perhaps more so given National did not lose its leader then.

Collins has now gone as leader, although it was likely she knew that before she even walked in through those caucus doors to defend her decision to send out the late-night press release demoting Simon Bridges.

The bedraggled heap that is the National Party is now even more bedraggled.

And yet there are already six names circulating of people who might just want to be leader of the bedraggled heap: Bridges, Christopher Luxon, Chris Bishop, Nicola Willis, Shane Reti and Mark Mitchell.

Of the six, Bridges or Luxon remain the top contenders – if both choose to go for it.

Mitchell will not stand if Bridges does decide to go for it, and the others are still sniffing their chances. Until Wednesday night, their names would not have been in the mix at all.

Luxon would be the cleaner break than Bridges – a totally fresh start. He is shiny and new and at the moment the urge to put the tawdry behind them makes him a more appealing option. He could well win because of that.

But he is no less risky an option now than he was on Tuesday. He is still green – and he will also still be aware that taking the job now could be even more of a kamikaze mission than it had been at the start of the week.

One big question is whether Bridges will still go for it – and it is almost certain that he still will.

He is a scrapper from way back – and he was on the precipice of executing the perfect coup before Collins released her misfiring torpedoes on Wednesday night.

Collins’ stocks had dropped. Bridges’ had risen. Polling on the pair heavily advantaged Bridges, and would have reassured MPs worried about his unpopularity. He had worked hard to restore himself.

Collins was always going to fight, it was a question of how.

As it happened, Collins herself became the collateral damage in her fight. But if it was Collins’ aim to scuttle Bridges’ chances, she has at least stopped it from being a sure thing.

So Bridges has now started the process of reinflating his balloon of hope.

That started yesterday, with his dismissal of Collins move against him as “desperation” and a solid mea culpa for very ill-judged comments he made to Jacqui Dean at a caucus retreat at Premier House five years ago.

It came across as a genuine apology, there was a full explanation of the context and nature of the comments, and another apology to Dean.

The public response to this week has seen Collins’ take a lot more flak than Bridges: he was seen by many having been set up by Collins over an issue that was very ill-judged, but hardly sackable.

That may well be enough to save his chances – although he will not get there as cleanly as he had hoped.

His mastery of that press conference also highlighted the key advantages he has over Luxon: experience and a titanium-like resilience. He is also battle-hardened in the hardest job in politics.

But Bridges has a fair few mea culpas and promises to do better building up behind him.

Whether caucus will allow him this one more will depend on how things go over the next few days.

The key priority is to find a new leader and do it cleanly, without spats between MPs that only continues the divisions in caucus.

For that reason, the weekend will deliver a lot of talks to try to come to a deal that sees only one name go up for leader and the other catered for in a deputy or finance role.

National is now in such a state that considerations of gender and Auckland vs regions splits for the top three posts are a luxury – the far more dominant concern is securing caucus unity.

In that regard, it may not help that Collins has said she intends to stay on as MP for Papakura, sitting there in the backbenches.

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