Judith Collins has described former National MP Denise Lee's leaked email to Newshub during the election campaign as a "body blow" the party could not recover from.
Speaking at Victoria University's post-election conference, Collins reflected on her ascension to the leadership following Todd Muller's resignation, just months after he rolled Simon Bridges for the position.
"My first reaction was 'no'. My second reaction was 'why'," Collins revealed, reflecting on the night before Muller's resignation when she was asked to consider taking up the leadership.
"I wouldn't quite describe it as a poisoned chalice, but it was hardly a golden ticket."
Collins says her husband David Wong Tung advised her against putting her name forward, but the Papakura MP decided to anyway, saying she woke up believing she could still lead National to a victory if things went smoothly.
"I'm an optimist," Collins told the crowd. "I genuinely believed we could still win the election if things went our way."
But Collins admitted that during the election campaign National was unable to get traction on its campaign themes concerning the economy.
She conceded that the multi-billion hole in National's fiscal plan put a "significant dent" in the party's economic credibility. National's then-finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith has since lost his portfolio.
"In a complete role reversal from 2017 we were coming under significant media pressure over our numbers," Collins said. "Even though our fiscal plan had been independently costed and endorsed we were unable to counter the fiscal hole narrative."
Collins earlier this week opened up to Magic Talk about the "unhelpful decision" made to shelve policy developed under the leadership of Bridges when Muller took over, which she touched on in her speech on Wednesday.
"I inherited the campaign themes set out by Todd Muller. We never really managed to get any traction with our campaign themes."
In Newshub's February poll, National was ahead of Labour on 43.3 percent. But by May - after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had received wide praise for her COVID-19 leadership - National fell to 30.6 percent and talk of a leadership coup was brewing.
Muller swooped in and took over as National Party leader. But he only lasted in the job for less than two months. Collins was then voted in by the caucus as leader and led National to a crushing election loss in October.
But Collins says keeping Bridges in the top spot wouldn't have made a difference. She told Magic Talk that while he was publicly polling high before COVID-19, National's internal polling painted a different picture.
"Our internal polling was nowhere near those stellar heights," Collins said.
"I think the fact is that the caucus chose Todd Muller to be the leader. There were all sorts of reasons for that but the main point is that it already happened now and I think we just have to move on."
Collins became National leader 13 weeks from the election and had to deal with internal issues such as Andrew Falloon's scandal, botched budget numbers, and MPs leaking against her. National had also just dealt with Hamish Walker leaking private COVID-19 patient data.
In her speech on Wednesday she admitted that the leaks and scandals hammered National's chances of being elected to power, particularly former National MP Denise Lee's leaked email to Newshub during the campaign.
In the email leaked to Newshub, Lee criticised Collins' plan to review Auckland Council as a "highly problematic idea", and Collins now admits it overshadowed her housing policy announcement because the leak was all the media wanted to discuss.
"The destabilisation of this leak was a body blow to the National Party that we never recovered from."
Collins previously revealed that the leak cost National 5 percent.
Despite National losing 15 seats to Labour and one to the Greens in the election, and facing the reality of a shrunken down caucus of 33 compared to 56 in 2017, Collins expects to remain leader in 2021.