Don’t be fooled for a moment by Judith Collins' seeming praise of Simon Bridges for "doing well" in a tough job.
National’s hapless leader is not doing well. He is doing terrible. Everyone can see that. Collins can see that. But she can’t say it. She can’t rub her leader’s face in the dirt. Not if she wants his job. And make no mistake, she craves it.
Her cooing political sweet nothings in Bridges' vicinity has the purpose of maintaining the fiction that she is not plotting to oust him.
Appearances are important. The pretence is all about not handing sceptical caucus colleagues reason or excuse which they might use to frustrate her single-minded pursuit of the party’s paramount position.
Mere mention of the words "leader" and "Collins" in the same sentence can conjure up choking noises en masse in National’s caucus room.
She is also starting from behind. The Papakura MP was eliminated in the first round of voting in the caucus ballot just over a year ago to elect a replacement for Bill English.
She claimed to have got a "dollop" of the votes cast. A dollop is not much. The consensus is she got even less.
Wind the clock forward and she now has her best but likely last opportunity to make it to the top.
Much the same logic attaches to what was a pretty straight up and down affirmation made by Collins this week that she accepts that Bridges will be the one leading the National Party into next year’s general election.
Of course, she accepts nothing of the sort. She intends to be the one leading National’s charge.
Being kind to Bridges is part of a wider softly-softly strategy. It is clever. It is shrewd. The objective is to have the leadership fall into her lap with the minimum of rancour and bitterness. It may well work.
It amounts to a leadership coup in reverse. For all intents and purposes, the current leader has already been toppled. More to the point, the person who has toppled Bridges is Bridges.
His 14 months as leader will likely be judged by most of those within National’s ranks as 14 months too long.
Bridges’ began his tenure as MMP Man. He appeared to have all the qualities, contacts and connections required of a modern day politician. He is now Mr Mediocrity.
He has now become such a liability that it is inconceivable that he will not be dumped. There is no shortage of arithmetic to demonstrate why.
National registered 44.4 per cent of the vote at the 2017 election. It was still hitting 46 per cent a year later in the 1 NEWS Colmar Brunton poll. Those figures were the legacy of the John Key-Bill English era.
There are now strong indications that the Key-English influence is fading — as would be expected. But Bridges has not come up with anything to replace it. Equally, if not more worrying are the signs that Bridges’ personal unpopularity is starting to infect National’s party vote.
With that support now hovering just above 40 per cent, the gap between National’s share of the party vote and the combined showing of Labour and the Greens has ballooned during the 14 months that Bridges has been leader from 5 percentage points to a whopping 16 points.
The net result is National’s senior MPs can look forward to a further three years twiddling their thumbs in Opposition.
The prognosis for those further down the party’s pecking order is potentially even bleaker. Should National’s share of the party vote tumble to 35 per cent, then National’s 15 list MPs will be looking for jobs in the real world.
The quandary for National is whether the party sticks with Bridges at its helm with the hope that he can lift his game and stem the outflow of support and hopefully regain some of the share of the vote that has ebbed away since the last election.
The downside risk of sticking with Bridges is that National’s vote could go into free-fall as occurred in 2002 during Bill English’s first stint as the party’s leader.
Collins will no doubt be playing on the fears the above numbers will be generating to build the numbers that really matter — namely votes in National’s 55-member caucus.
For his part, Bridges will be living in his own fear of the knock on the door of a delegation of senior colleagues telling him it is time for him to go.
It is inconceivable that National would persist with Bridges. The ongoing pressures imposed on him by a never ending succession of bad polls have taken their toll.
His judgment seems to have deserted him.
No matter how hard he tries, he just can’t seem to win. Whatever he does is deemed more often than not to have been the wrong thing even when it is patently the right thing.
Bridges’ exposure this week of close to $1.1 million forked out by the Corrections Department on the purchase of 193 crushed ice-making machines is an apt case in point.
What should have been a story about waste of taxpayers’ money — the machines bought by Corrections were top of the line — turned into a barrage of criticism accusing Bridges of being consumed with the trivial.
So should National dump Bridges and replace him with Collins?
The answer is over their dead bodies. It is that not long ago that the leadership ballot which saw Bridges emerge triumphant and left Collins humiliated.
It is difficult to believe that Collins’ colleagues have become any more enamoured with the idea of her taking over as leader than was the case just over a year ago.
They have to ask themselves whether is it more important to give themselves a chance of defeating Jacinda Ardern-led Labour at next year’s election or whether their first priority is blocking Collins from ruling National’s roost?
That is not as selfish as it might sound. Installing Collins as leader could turn out to be more disastrous than sticking with Bridges.
Collins’ strengths are well-documented. She is tough, decisive, fearless. Likewise her weaknesses. The chief of those is that she is prone to lapses of judgment.
She also polarises opinion. She is regarded as extreme. She has previously delighted in accepting invitations to speak at ACT’s annual conference. She could end up switching off National’s connection to Middle New Zealand. That would be a catastrophe for National.
The key question is whether there is any other suitable senior MP waiting in the wings who could be persuaded to take over from Bridges.
Nikki Kaye has made it as clear as it possible to be that she has no desire to become leader.
Amy Adams has been a big disappointment since her promotion to the shadow Finance portfolio.
Other potential contenders —such as Mark Mitchell or Todd McClay — lack for a public profile.
As hungry as most MPs might be to become the leader of their party, there is an understandable reluctance to pick up the leadership reins on entering Opposition after a long spell in government.
There is a long list of leaders from both Labour and National who failed to win the subsequent election and paid the price for that failure.
That will be of no worry to Collins. She has been an MP since 2002. The 2020 election is her last opportunity to become prime minister.
She will be 64 by the time the 2023 election rolls around. A new generation will be fighting the party’s battles.
Collins’ biggest selling point is that no-one else in National’s camp has the capacity to be the game-changer the party so desperately needs.
With Collins leading the charge, the chances of victory are still not that great. But they are exponentially better than anyone else can offer.