National leadership: Pundits' brutal assessments of candidates, shock at Judith Collins' attempt to 'destroy' Simon Bridges

Described as "absolutely unproven" and "as about as exciting as the Taihape public toilets", Christopher Luxon still has a way to go to prove he could be a successful National leader, two political commentators say.

The National Party's leadership is now vacant following Judith Collins' spectacular fall on Thursday after she suddenly demoted potential rival Simon Bridges by raising an allegation made against him by fellow MP Jacqui Dean. The process through which Collins did that, including by releasing a statement that some have called inaccurate and not briefing caucus, led her colleagues to decide it was time for her to go.

Collins' deputy Dr Shane Reti is currently acting as the party's interim leader ahead of a meeting on Tuesday when MPs will decide who will take the top job. Newshub's heard both Luxon, the former Air New Zealand boss, and ex-cop Mark Mitchell have put themselves forward for the job, while Bridges is considering a run.

So who do the pundits think are the party's best bet? 

Trish Sherson, a right-leaning commentator and former ACT Party staffer, told The AM Show that it shouldn't be Mitchell due to his lack of name recognition. Luxon, she said, was the "cleanest option" as he was new to politics with little baggage, but he's also "absolutely unproven". 

"As we saw with the [Todd] Muller debacle, you know, it is a really tough gig if you haven't got that sort of hard experience in politics," Sherson said.

She's referring to Muller's rise and then demise as leader. After rolling Bridges in a coup last May, Muller resigned from the leadership less than two months later, citing health problems. He's since admitted to the difficulties he had in the role and the mental strain on him. 

Sherson said Bridges has done a lot to "rehabilitate himself" after losing the leadership, something he noted on Thursday by saying he was a "wiser" person now.

"He might be the one right now but he and Luxon both are going to have to have a plan to work together," Sherson said. "They're going to have to be really smart around who their Finance spokesperson is and who their deputy leader is."

It's thought Bridges may have been looking at East Coast Bays MP Erica Stanford to be the deputy on his ticket, with Stanford being from Auckland (Bridges is Tauranga-based) and a liberal. Luxon has also been namechecked as a possible Finance spokesperson under Bridges.

The likely contenders.
The likely contenders. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Mike Williams, who leans left and is a former Labour Party President, told The AM Show that he also would pick Bridges if the party decided not to keep Dr Reti in the role. The interim leader hasn't made his plans clear yet.

"I'm not familiar with Luxon and not many people are," said Williams. "I Googled him. He does a lot of talking on Facebook. He's had a charisma bypass. He is about as exciting as the Taihape public toilets. I think Simon Bridges will be given another go."

Regarding Collins' move on Wednesday night, both Sherson and Williams agree it was essentially a kamikaze attack.

"There's never been a time I don't think in my adult life when a strong opposition is needed more and National just seems incapable of putting the public interest in front of personal interests," Sherson said.

"The reality for the National Party is this leadership debacle is only the tip of the iceberg for that party. It is custard turning into a dog's breakfast. And that is, even for politics, a pretty rare event."

Collins is gone as leader.
Collins is gone as leader. Photo credit: Getty Images.

She said Collins's actions were "grubby and chaotic".

"So why would voters at this stage have National as an option? People say that being the leader of the opposition is the worst job in politics and I think it is a really tough job. But if you were a great Opposition leader right now, and you were able to get your people focused, get policy out that people could rally around, I think there's never been a better time. 

"There's just so many holes in the pitch at the moment that this Government's running for you to shine your torch down and have an absolute field day."

Williams said he was surprised by Collins' behaviour, saying he had previously "expressed some degree of admiration" for the Papakura MP after interacting with her when she was Minister of Corrections. 

"It can only be explained by a rush of blood to the head. It's an extremely nasty piece of politicking to bring up something that happened five years ago," said Williams.

"She was not seeking just to defeat Simon Bridges, she was seeking to destroy him and that, to me, is quite unique in politics. The result as far as I can see was inevitable."

Collins said in her Wednesday statement that the "seriousness" of the allegation put forward by Dean "demands a swift and decisive response" and that under her leadership National "will not tolerate harassment and intimidation of any person. 

Dean, however, is reportedly surprised by what happened after she told Collins of her concern several weeks ago. While Dean's complaint about Bridges stems from an incident five years ago which he apologised at the time for, she brought it up again in light of Parliament's review into workplace culture. She claims she didn't expect it would be used to demote Bridges.

Collins, however, on Friday morning said she hadn't felt Bridges' comment was "properly dealt with" at the time.

She's now calling for the new generation of MPs to step up and take the leadership, promoting names such as Luxon, Chris Bishop and Nicola Willis.

Could Chris Bishop step up?
Could Chris Bishop step up? Photo credit: Getty Images.

Williams told The AM Show National needs to agree on a "fundamental ideology", but it may be difficult without leaders like Sir John Key and Sir Bill English who could bridge the gap between the conservative and liberal factions of the party. 

"The conservatives, people like Chris Luxon, Chris Penk, Simeon Brown, are fundamental conservatives. They are really to the right of the party. 

"If you can't get that ideology together, you haven't got unity, and what you haven't got is discipline. You need those three things… then you get a leader. 

"I can't see a potential leader who can put all that together with a possible exception of Shane Reti."

Sherson said National was a "party without a purpose" and also laid blame at the feet of President Peter Goodfellow, who has served in that role since Sir John's first term as Prime Minister. His position was put in doubt earlier this year amid questions over the suitability of candidate selections, but he continues to hold on.

"It was amazing the party reelected him again this year," Sherson said. "I think the party has to have a good look at itself as well. The leader really is the cherry on top of this cake and at the moment there is no icing and there is no cake."