Simon Bridges has denied his headline-grabbing antics of the past week are a prelude to an attempted leadership spill.
But at the same time he's continued to defy National leader Judith Collins' instructions to stop targeting Police Commissioner Andrew Coster, and direct his criticisms to the minister.
Bridges has labelled Coster a "wokester", unhappy with his approach to tackling gang crime.
"There are massive gatherings of gangs taking over our streets - police don't even turn up anymore, let alone make arrests," Bridges told The AM Show on Friday morning, continuing a line of attack he began a week ago after the police announced plans to use a "nuanced" approach in future, saying they couldn't "arrest their way" out of the problem.
"Let's be fair - it's not just him, it's [Police Minister] Poto Williams, it's the Prime Minister who appointed him, and knew what she was doing when she appointed him," said Bridges.
"I'm not going to exaggerate - I would say I've had 45 emails from serving police officers right now, that's not counting the retired ones and the members of the public, and they are worried that police have become social workers. They stand by and they watch, rather than enforcing public safety."
Bridges, who is not National's police spokesperson - that is Simeon Brown - brushed off Collins' directive to stop criticising Coster.
"I respect Judith, she's doing a good job. There's only one person that reprimands me, and that's Natalie Bridges," he said - Natalie being his wife.
"So what you're saying is you won't listen to Judith?" asked AM Show host Duncan Garner.
"Not at all - I didn't say that," Bridges replied.
Asked what "woke" meant, Simon Bridges told Garner he could look in a dictionary. According to Mirriam-Webster, it means to be "aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)".
Gang number debate continues
Earlier this week National claimed gang numbers were exploding under Labour, citing the police's list of known gang members. Coster said the list shouldn't be used that way, as it's easy to get your name on it, but much harder to come off.
"It probably is only going to go in one direction," he told The AM Show.
It's a view backed up by Jarrod Gilbert, director of criminal justice at the University of Canterbury and author of Patched: The history of gangs in New Zealand. He told The AM Show on Thursday patches aren't as difficult to earn as they used to be.
"You're seeing a lot of people join, realise it's not for them for whatever reason, then dropping off."
Bridges doubled down, saying both Coster and Gilbert are wrong.
"Because a few people have retired and a few old codgers have died, somehow that makes up for the thousands - because it is thousands - of new recruits. It just doesn't [make sense]."
Neither Gilbert nor Coster said anything about the list's numbers being bulked up by retirees - Gilbert instead attributing its inaccuracies to "churn" in the scene.
Labour MP David Parker, appearing on The AM Show with Bridges, said National had nine years to solve the gang problem and instead dropped police numbers.
"We've actually increased police numbers by 1300, 700 of whom are focusing on organised crime, which is predominantly gangs. You've got to go after the money, the guns, the cars."
Bridges said it didn't matter how many police there were if they were just acting as "social workers", saying New Zealand should adopt Australia's policies towards gangs. Parker said Australia's policy was to "give us their gang members", referring to Australia's controversial deportation of homegrown criminals with tenuous childhood links to New Zealand.
Police annual reports show the number of officers and staff barely shifted during National's time in power.
Garner put it to Bridges his outspoken attacks and defiance of Collins was signs he was interested in retaking the leadership. Bridges had National polling in the mid-40s this time last year, within shot of forming the next the Government - but was rolled after a surge in support for Labour following the first COVID-19 outbreak.
"I don't want to be leader. I just want to say what I think's going on in New Zealand," he said.
"No. Never. What I want to do is get up in the morning and say what I think's going on - not recklessly, but in a serious way. And that's what I've done in relation to the Police Commissioner."