OPINION: With the patience of a saint - and mischievousness of a sinner - tonight is finally Judith Collins' night.
She held back from a leadership bid during the bloody coup of Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett but helped ensure they were ousted, giving her vote to Todd Muller (Bridges thought she was in his corner, ouch).
Watch the Newshub Special on the National Party leadership crisis live tonight from 7.30pm on Newshub.co.nz.
She won't be so coy come National's crisis caucus at 7pm. This is her moment. Sixty-seven days out from the election and after 18 years in politics Collins will no doubt see herself as the most viable opponent to take on the vastly popular Jacinda Ardern.
Unlike Todd Muller, she has name recognition and cut-through with the public which is critical at this very, very late juncture. Like Ardern who voters call 'Jacinda', Collins is known as 'Judith'. Muller usually just invoked, 'who?'.
Collins didn't have the numbers in caucus to make a move when Bridges was rolled but brutal shocks like Muller's resignation today have a way of galvanising a caucus.
Especially if there's resentment over the abrupt upheaval from any MPs who voted for Muller in the last contest.
If Collins has the numbers, National could have a new leader by tonight.
Basically, if the caucus can unify behind one candidate - which it so desperately needs to do - the decision could be made in a couple of hours.
If the leadership is contested the urgent decision will be rolled over, drawing out the ugly, destabilising process.
Contest seems inevitable. These are the possible leader/deputy tickets:
- Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett.
- Amy Adams and Nikki Kaye. Roles interchangeable.
- Mark Mitchell and Paula Bennett. Roles interchangeable.
Who Judith Collins' deputy will be comes down to politics.
If the caucus is so divided beyond easy resolution there could be a compromise with a deputy coming over to Collins from one of the other tickets.
Bridges and Bennett are the wild cards. Pre-COVID Bridges was polling at 35% in the party's internal polls the week before he was rolled. Muller took National as low as 34% by the same touchstone.
Team Bridges is certain that as Ardern's COVID leadership dimmed he would be able to resuscitate the numbers. Bridges' tough on crime, scrappy streetfighter style got the party results. There will be a sense from those injured in the coup that it was needless and the party should bring back Bridges and Bennett and pretend the last 53 days didn't even happen.
Before today an Adams/Kaye ticket would have been seen as a safe, sensible, strategic option. Unfortunately for these two competent, smart operators their fates and names are inextricably tied to Todd Muller's. And although Muller is hurting, and the party is expressing concern and compassion for him and his family, he also immeasurably hurt the party with his sudden, fraught departure.
The Mitchell/Bennett option has been a long-running rumour. Bennett bowed out of politics under Muller but so too had Amy Adams under Bridges. Politicians are experts at reneging. It's the least likely option but that's not to say it's not an option. Mitchell wasn't ruling it out this morning, only to say these are all matters for caucus.
The party would be best served by a swift change of guard, all over in a day, move on and capitalise on any leadership honeymoon in the lead up to the campaign proper.
But National is a party in crisis and when you've got your back against the wall and nothing to lose, the gloves are off. The party is heading into the ring with half a dozen fighters. Bloody noses, bruised egos are inevitable.
Tova O'Brien is Newshub's political editor.