Judith Collins' rise changes 'energy' ahead of election, but commentators debate if National is showing 'desperation'

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern needs to watch out, as the "whole energy has changed" following Judith Collins' election as National leader, one commentator says, but another says it reeks of desperation from the centre-right party.

Following the bombshell announcement on Tuesday morning that National leader Todd Muller was stepping down, citing health reasons, Collins was catapulted to power, grasping the top National spot she has always wanted. 

Prior to Simon Bridges being rolled in May, National was at 30.6 percent in the Newshub-Reid Research poll, while a Roy Morgan poll out on Tuesday - that surveyed during June with Muller in charge - put it at 27 percent. That poll had National at 26.5 percent in May.

With an election scheduled for September 19, pressure was piling on National, but right-leaning commentator Trish Sherson told The AM Show that after Collins' rise, "the whole energy has changed".

"Even in the way that you were talking about it this morning. Last night, people saying: 'Look at this leadership team, it's formidable in Gerry and Judith'," she said.

"The difference between when Judith and Gerry emerged from that caucus room last night to 54 days ago when Nikki and Todd emerged. Nikki and Todd came out and they were frowning, they looked uncertain. Last night, it was like a great ocean liner just roaring down the corridor."

Referencing the start of a wrestling match, Sherson said: "Let's get ready to rumble". 

Sherson believes that, unlike previous leaders, Collins "can get cut-through" and pointed to how she picked apart Phil Twyford and the Government's KiwiBuild programme.

"That's why I think if I were Jacinda, I would be worried. I would be looking at what happened to Phil [Twyford] and going 'now it is my turn'."

But left-leaning commentator Chris Trotter isn't so sure Collins will end up taking National into Government, suggesting she is there to keep the party base happy and retain as many seats as possible. He noted that Collins has gone for leader twice before and failed. 

"It does really have the character of a Hail Mary pass for National. She's tried, she failed, she's tried, she failed. Now that the party is in dire straits they reach for her as a drowning man would reach for a life buoy."

He compared her to former Labour Prime Minister Mike Moore and there to "save the furniture". 

"Now what you have got is National retreating back into its absolute core. She is a very hardline politician and National has done this before and it has only been successful when they have been facing somebody who is perceived, not only by National but by the country as a whole, as the lesser vessel, the weaker link."

Asked if Labour and National both having female leaders may bring more voters out, Trotter said National putting a woman at the top showed its "desperation". 

"It is a very interesting development, and once again, I think it shows a National Party in desperation. With all due respect to the National Party, they are not very keen on women leaders and they tend to go for women leaders when 'hell, what have we got to lose."

The AM Show host Duncan Garner said the party was "nervous about female leaders because they are traditional old blokes".

Trotter replied: "This is true and in that sense, Judith falls into the Margaret Thatcher category, not the Helen Clark or the Jacinda Ardern category. She is a better man than all the others."

He had a suggestion for Ardern.

"The question now is: Can Jacinda find a way to do what I think a majority of New Zealanders want her to do and that is laugh Judith off the stage. I think that would be by far her best course of action."

While Trotter highlighted how the political landscape has changed significantly since when National was polling close to and often ahead of Labour, Sherson said Collins will be looking at "all options here". 

"She will be very pleased with what is happening with Act and that they are getting a better run. Yes, the polls at the moment… they are looking much better for Labour, but these things can swing around so wildly," she said.

She agrees with The AM Show's Garner that Collins will "skyrocket" in the preferred Prime Minister poll. Garner thinks she will head north of 20 percent. Trotter says she hasn't reached too high in those stakes to date.

Judith Collins' rise changes 'energy' ahead of election, but commentators debate if National is showing 'desperation'
Photo credit: Getty / The AM Show.

Uniting National is crucial - Tova O'Brien

Later on The AM Show, Newshub Political Editor Tova O'Brien said uniting the National Party will be key for Collins.

"If Judith Collins can keep all of those guys in line, then she is going to be in for a good shot."

O'Brien identified three ways electing Collins works in the party's favour: Collins already has name recognition, she is a kind of "anti-Ardern" who won't try and beat the Prime Minister at her own game, and finally, her "hand-to-hand combat" proven in the past with her opposition to KiwiBuild. 

"Probably 18 years in the job, she has settled into it a bit more. She was willing to bide her time and wait for this moment."

She said Collins has long had many different facets.

"There is the stateswoman Judith, there is the cheeky Judith, there is the mischievous Judith, there is the Machiavellian Judith, and I think all of those things exist within her and she determines which one she brings to the party depending on the occasion." 

To see nearly the entire National caucus follow Collins and Brownlee to their first press conference was "quite phenomenal", said O'Brien. 

"We need to wait and see if the reality matches the perception. But I think most National MPs, even though there has always been this strong Anyone But Collins coterie within the National Party caucus, I think there is a real recognition within the National Party that it needs, if it wants to win this thing or even have a good tilt at winning the election, it needs to get in behind Judith Collins and kinda zip it sweetie in terms of those leaks which have been plentiful from the party since it has been in Opposition." 

O'Brien said Brownlee has acted as a mentor to younger MPs, knows Parliament inside-out, has been a senior minister, and is the campaign chair.

"Perhaps some of those that didn't necessarily respond or gel that well with Judith Collins, he will keep them in line and he will bring them over to support this new leadership ticket going into the election."