WHAT JUST HAPPENED? Seriously. What on earth possessed Judith Collins to move against Simon Bridges so maladroitly, and with so little prospect of success? It’s baffling.
The tactic employed, resurrecting a five-year-old incident that had been resolved, um, five years ago, was just so incredibly dumb. Honestly, I thought Judith Collins was a whole lot smarter than that. To take such a huge risk, she must have believed Bridges had a lock on the caucus that was unbreakable and that he intended to move against her sooner, rather than later.
Presumably, that is why Collins refused to call caucus together yesterday evening (24/11/21) as Bridges, quite understandably, demanded. She must have calculated that the move she was intending to make against her principal contender would not be approved.
As a lawyer, Collins should have known that even Bridges’ caucus enemies would require a proper process to be followed, and the rules of natural justice observed. So, according to her own testimony, she took the matter to the National Party Board instead. With their (alleged) full support, Collins then issued a media release banishing Bridges to the back-benches. His crime? Telling a dirty joke in the earshot of Waitaki MP, Jacqui Dean.
Except, that makes no sense at all. By refusing to take the matter to caucus, and beheading Bridges without their consent, all Collins did was make sure that, when the National Caucus next convened, her own head would be on the block. One had only to listen to the pure, cold, fury in the voices of National MPs as they made their way to the caucus room this morning (25/11/21) to appreciate just how hopeless Collins’ position had become.
The peculiar thing is, it could all have been done so differently – and with a much greater chance of success. Had Collins caused the information, and the precise wording of Bridges’ dirty joke, to end up in the hands of the relentless Furies of the news media, his progress towards a caucus showdown would, at the very least, have been slowed. Indeed, with the right handling, Bridges could have been “exposed” as a nasty, sexist, sleaze-bag. To paraphrase the inimitable Lyndon Johnson: Collins wouldn’t be calling her rival a “nasty, sexist, sleaze-bag”, she would be forcing him to deny it.
Surely, that would have been the smart move? She could have knifed Bridges good and proper, while leaving no fingerprints on the blade.
Collins huge advantage – before she committed “political suicide by caucus” – was that National’s caucus was split into what, from the outside, looked like four factions.
There was her own faction, of course, not that big, but not that small either. Then there were Bridges’ people, who were said to constitute a bare majority. Impressive, but also inadequate. Bridges needed to come roaring home in any contest. Just squeaking in would only leave a roughly equal number of National MPs seething and fuming behind his back. Christopher Luxon’s people were also numerous, just not as numerous as Bridges’. Finally, there were the so-called “liberals”. A small faction, but potentially crucial to securing a decisive vote for Unity and Change.
The trick was to keep all the factions in favour of a leadership change off-balance and mistrustful of each other. Let their numbers people work away, drawing up lists of “Definites” “Possibles” and “Don’t Bother Askings”. Just make sure that while they’re doing that, you’re doing everything in your power to keep the tallies inadequate to the challenge of achieving Unity and Change.
It isn’t an heroic strategy, but you’d be surprised how often in history it has succeeded. The Romans called in divide et impera – divide and rule. What it had given Collins – and was continuing to give her – was time. Time in which all manner of unpredictable things can happen. What sort of things? The sort of things which the 1960s Tory leader, Harold Macmillan, famously reduced to: “Events, dear boy, events.”
Why didn’t Collins stick with the strategy that had kept her, National’s most improbable of leaders, in power for more than a year? One might just as well ask why Rob Muldoon (that other unforgiving right-wing populist National Party leader) got drunk and called the snap-election that would destroy him, way back in June 1984. Or, demand to know why Jim Anderton suddenly abandoned the leadership of the Alliance in November 1994.
“Events, dear boy, events.” Something you didn’t expect, and can’t fix, happens, and it all just gets too much. All the plotting and scheming. All the arm-twisting and political assassinating. Suddenly, the whole shitty business no longer seems worth the effort, and the all people around you start looking too hopelessly fucked-up to bother with.
And. You. Snap.
No other explanation seems to fit. Wednesday, 24 November 2021, will go down as the day Collins simply stopped fighting. Not because she was beaten, but because she could no longer remember the point of trying so hard to win.
In the midst of a global pandemic. Facing a Labour Party whose leadership is younger, nimbler, and more attuned to the zeitgeist. In charge of a party too ideologically and socially constipated to re-join the political fray as a competitive player. Judith Collins, eyebrow raised, quietly picked up her rifle, climbed out of the trench, and started walking across no-man’s land towards the enemy. Predictably she was shot to pieces before she’d taken 100 paces.
It wasn’t pretty. But it was, at least, over.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 26 November 2021.