'Dark arts': Is Judith Collins plotting a post-election coup?

Whoever wins Friday's National Party leadership showdown might not be leading the party for very long, political commentators say.

After the party's predicted defeat in the September election, expect Judith Collins to swoop and fulfil her self-appointed destiny, says veteran political reporter Richard Harman. 

"This is a woman who has seemed up until yesterday to have devoted her political career to becoming leader of the National Party," Harman, editor of political news site Politik, told The AM Show. 

"She is not, and has not, been a Bridges supporter for a long time. To suddenly find that she is, was a bit surprising."

Collins on Wednesday told Newshub Bridges is "very hardworking and has a quality of tenacity which is admirable", and had no intentions of running for the leadership at this stage.

"It is very important I think that there is as much caucus unity as possible going into any election and I'm just not interested in being part of anything other than doing my job," she told NZME. "My view is I am just focused on the job and I am not part of anything that is going on. I am keeping myself well out of everything."

Collins has twice run for the leadership before - in 2016, when she pulled out of the race to let Bill English win unopposed, and in 2018, when she was defeated by Simon Bridges for the leadership and by Paula Bennett for the deputy role. 

Bridges, Bennett, Kaye and Muller.
Bridges, Bennett, Kaye and Muller. Photo credit: Getty

But this week's poll was dire reading for the party. Betting websites have them paying $5 to win - a one-in-six chance - and in the five elections, no leader of a major political party has survived losing an election. 

"I wonder whether what she's trying to do, what she's thinking is whoever wins the leadership is not going to form the next Government and that there will be another chance after the election. She'll be able to stand back and say, 'I didn't take part in any of that mess before the election - you can trust me.' That might work. 

"There will be a different caucus after the election, and that might be a path to leadership for her - but at the moment it's difficult to work out what her strategy is."

Political scientist Bryce Edwards said Collins could be convinced to vote for change if she's offered "something nice" in return. 

"He might promise her finance spokesperson - something like that could shift her and her supporters...  Yes, Collins looks like she's with Bridges - but there's dark arts going on here."

Harman believes Collins holds the balance of power between the two camps. 

"I think it's very tight, very close. They're going to be working the phones again today and votes can shift."