Frenetic 15 hours that sank Collins
It was an emailed statement that proved fatal to Judith Collins’ leadership of the National Party. Collins had confronted senior MP Simon Bridges on Wednesday afternoon about a complaint she would later characterise as ‘‘serious misconduct’’. As a result, he was being demoted and stripped of his portfolios. Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean, who has chaired Parliament’s culture committee since April, had come to her with a complaint about something Bridges said five years earlier. The comments were made during an all-day party caucus meeting at Wellington’s Premier House when National was in power in 2016. According to Bridges, he was talking with a group of MPs, including Dean, about having two boys and wanting a girl. He ‘‘engaged in some old wives’ tales’’ – understood to be a discussion about the type of sex that might conceive a girl. Collins was first told of the incident on Tuesday last week. Bridges had apologised to Dean at the time, but the Waitaki MP was again concerned about the incident, in light of conducting reviews of parliamentary culture. Backers of Collins said Bridges refused to deal with her over the matter on Wednesday evening. He was boldly said to have offered Shane Reti, the party’s deputy leader, the health portfolio if Bridges were to become leader. Her camp claimed that Collins later texted Bridges three times about the issue. She spoke to the National Party board about what she planned to do, and talked to Dean about taking the complaint public. At 9.23pm on Wednesday, Collins’ chief press secretary, John Mitchell, hit send on an email with the subject line: ‘‘Simon Bridges demoted following complaint’’. But members believed there was more to the email, considering its timing. Collins had been fielding questions for weeks about a tenuous grip on the party’s leadership, and Bridges hadn’t dispelled suggestions he was ‘‘doing the numbers’’ to determine the level of support he had in caucus. In her statement, Collins claimed she had the ‘‘unanimous support’’ of the party’s board in demoting Bridges – something quickly disputed by MPs. In the aftermath of the day’s events, the board rejected Collins’ assertion, saying in a statement that the board supported only some further investigation into the complaint. ‘‘Having been made aware of the seriousness of the complaint for the first time, and the ongoing distress this has caused the complainant, I was left with no option,’’ Collins wrote. But the National Party caucus was entirely blindsided. Shortly afterwards, party staffers confirmed there would be a press conference in 12 hours – at 10am the next morning – with Collins, Reti, and Dean all to front. But not before a crisis caucus meeting. Bridges’ backers were quick to claim Collins’ move was a ‘‘hit job’’ over an off-colour comment made years ago, and dealt with at the time. It was quickly obvious yesterday morning that a vote of no confidence would be called for. Simon Bridges texted reporters at 6.45am, saying he would make a brief media statement in front of Parliament 15 minutes later. Bridges came out fighting. He said Collins was ‘‘truly desperate’’ and would do ‘‘anything to hold on to the leadership’’. Though the details of his claimed ‘‘serious misconduct’’ were yet to be revealed, Bridges promised a press conference after the 9am caucus meeting. Most National MPs were unwilling to comment as they headed into Parliament. Some showed frustration that their leader had demoted Bridges without taking the matter to the caucus first. Dean wouldn’t be drawn on what Bridges said to her, or confirm whether she was also in the company of National MP Todd McClay and now disgraced former MP Jami-Lee Ross at the time. ‘‘I am going to talk to you at 10 o’clock in a nice controlled setting,’’ she said. Kaipara ki Mahurangi MP Chris Penk said a ‘‘natural justice’’ process should have been followed. Whanganui-based MP Harete Hipango, a long-time Collins ally, said it was an issue that ‘‘needs to be aired’’. Barbara Kuriger, MP for Taranaki-King Country, appeared deflated by the saga: ‘‘When you work your butt off every day you don’t want to be standing here answering questions.’’ The most outspoken was Simon O’Connor, Bridges’ brother-in-law, who said he could no longer work for Collins and would hand in his portfolio. ‘‘One thing is abundantly clear to me and that is that Judith Collins must resign. Her actions are just downright appalling, as is the way that this has been handled,’’ he said. He upped the ante later in the morning, saying Collins should resign from the leadership, and from Parliament and her long-held Papakura seat. The hallway leading to National’s caucus room, on the third floor of Parliament, was obscured by an oversized National Party banner to prevent reporters watching MPs come and go. The minutes ticked by, and it became clear an outcome would not be reached by 10am. Hours later, MPs left the room for a toilet and water break. After midday, word filtered out to press gallery reporters: Collins had been rolled. The caucus had moved a successful vote of no confidence in her. MPs were dismayed at how she had handled the complaint about Bridges. Collins confirmed the news in a series of messages posted on Twitter at 12.35pm, saying she was ‘‘pleased to say that I am just the MP for Papakura again’’. She added: ‘‘I knew when I was confided in by a female colleague regarding her allegation of serious misconduct against a senior colleague, that I would likely lose the leadership by taking the matter so seriously.’’ Intrigue mounted over who would emerge from the room as leader. Reports of Botany MP Chris Luxon and Whangaparā oa MP Mark Mitchell vying for the leadership were incorrect. Down the marble steps from the third floor, to waiting reporters, came deputy leader Reti – who by National Party process would be interim leader until an appointment was made by caucus at a meeting next Tuesday. Reti, fronting the press with chief whip Matt Doocey and junior whip Maureen Pugh at his side, was visibly emotional. ‘‘This is not our best day,’’ he said. ‘‘An allegation was raised, and we took it very seriously.’’ Two hours later, he would be standing in the House as the leader of the Opposition, delivering the party’s first question during Question Time. But the party had messiness to tidy up in the intervening hours. Shortly after Reti spoke, Dean issued a statement outlining her version of events. ‘‘At the time there was an apology, but subsequently it has continued to play on my mind and, with the recent reviews that have occurred in Parliament, the feelings have been brought back up.’’ Bridges was in front of the cameras at 1.40pm. He was contrite – the comments made were inappropriate, he agreed – but he said Collins’ press release was ‘‘just not correct’’. He would not deny his interest in taking a tilt for the leadership. Collins, meanwhile, hurriedly left Parliament in a taxi. With a smile for the cameras, she said she did not regret her handling of the complaint about Bridges. She said she was feeling ‘‘very good, actually’’. ‘‘It’s a really hard job and I’ve done everything I possibly could, and I just wish everyone well.’’ She returned to Parliament at 4pm that afternoon and headed across the road to the Backbencher, to have a drink with her staffers in the pub, underneath the famous puppets of the country’s political leaders – who once included her.