Judith Collins leadership flagging before Dr Siouxsie Wiles scandal

OPINION

Microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles will not effect a change of leadership in the National Party.

Though the decision of leader Judith Collins to label Wiles a “big, fat hypocrite” was embarrassing for both Collins and the wider party, Wiles has never had staunch supporters in caucus.

In fact, it is quite the opposite. Of the multi-lettered talking heads New Zealanders have become familiar with over the pandemic, Wiles is probably the least popular with people on the right. She’s often viewed as Labour’s scientific alibi – finding some scientific reason to justify whatever the Government is or is not doing.

Her reluctance to embrace pre-departure testing requirements last summer – something supported by National and epidemiologist Dr Michael Baker – was a characteristic example. The Government eventually caved, and introduced limited pre-departure testing.

But the fact that Wiles has few friends inside the National caucus does not make her treatment by Collins any more appealing to MPs.

Having a leader describe anyone as a “big, fat hypocrite” is fairly unedifying – whether the caucus likes them or not. In fact, having been lectured by Collins about the need to have a laserlike focus on the issues that matter to ordinary Kiwis, many in caucus may now be wondering ifthe hypocrite label might better be applied to Collins herself.

Wiles appears not to have broken any rules – but that does not make her trip to the beach entirely above scrutiny.

She has been a consistent champion of harsher epidemic prevention measures. Earlier this year, she dobbed in Air New Zealand for “their attitude to masks”. The airline’s sin was allowing people to remove their masks while having an in-flight snack.

“This makes me really angry as they got a massive bail out from the government to keep them viable & so surely in return they should be doing their bit for our team of 5 million,” Wiles tweeted.

And just a fortnight ago, Wiles took a swipe at people who might “break or bend the rules”.

“The more people think it won’t matter if they break or bend the rules, the more chance of setting off new chains of transmission. And that will mean restrictions will be needed for longer,” Wiles tweeted.

That Tweet appears to quite accurately describe Wiles’ own predicament.

It should come as no surprise to Wiles that, as someone who zealously lobbied for harsher rules, people would naturally be interested in whether or not she followed those rules with similar enthusiasm.

Of course, that point was obfuscated by Collins’ mad and indefensible decision to smear Wiles as “big” and “fat” – something she claims is an idiom, rather than a comment on Wiles’ appearance. Wiles may actually be a hypocrite, but no one really cares now. The national attention has moved to why the leader of an allegedly constructive opposition has dragged her party into gutter trollery.

At the beginning of the year, sources inside the caucus and wider party were fairly sceptical that Collins would make it to the election, but they were fairly sure she’d see out 2021.

Leadership coups are messy things. Agitators have to find someone who doesn’t just want to be leader, but wants to be leader right now. And with Labour riding high in the polls, it takes a pretty special someone to want to pick up the ball and run with it to the election, with the not inconsiderable risk of dashing their prime ministerial hopes along the way.

At least one MP had voiced a preference for letting Collins flame out in 2023 and engineer a peaceful transfer of power after the election.

There is merit to this argument. In 2020, National’s dramatic polling collapse meant many in the caucus were (quite rightly, as it turned out) spooked they’d lose their seats at the forthcoming election. These itchy footed MPs keenly engineered and backed a leadership change. With the caucus now much reduced, there’s no itchy feet constituency for any challenger to draw on.

But the calculus appears to have changed in the past fortnight. Collins’ performance has exhibited what some have alleged is poor judgment. Her interview with TVNZ’s Indira Stewart exhibited Collins’ short fuse in interviews and propensity to dig in and fight rather than move on.

Former leader Simon Bridges is considered the front-runner to reclaim the crown. Christopher Luxon is keeping his cards close to his chest, and appears to have decided his best move is to wait. Other high-profile MPs come from the party’s denuded liberal caucus, which has nowhere near the numbers to mount a successful challenge.

To the surprise of even some MPs there is a sense that the cause of a leadership change has accelerated in the past fortnight.

Collins looks to have responded by securing allies by sinecure, promising good portfolios to loyalists and friends. This is hardly a winning strategy. The net effect of this kind of reshuffle is zero: for every promotion there is a demotion. Collins’ challengers can and will make promises of their own.

Nothing can happen imminently. Many MPs are currently trapped in Auckland. No one thinks a change is quite worth a mini caucus flying to Wellington and the reputational damage it would bring.

But it looks likely restrictions in Auckland will begin lifting by the time Parliament starts sitting again, giving MPs some freedom to think about mounting a challenge.

The caucus will have at least one meeting during the recess via Zoom. This is not entirely uncommon, but it has been suggested by someone this is a method of exerting power over her MPs and making sure they don’t stray too far during the break.

The Wiles incident has cemented this more than anything else. MPs read Cameron Slater’s blog posts, and there was much lip-smacking at Wiles’ predicament, but they would rather their leader not so openly be associated with the controversial blogger.

Slater is not himself the death-knell to Collins’ leadership. Former leader John Key survived the fallout from the Dirty Politics scandal which shone a light on Slater’s association with the party, trouncing Labour’s David Cunliffe in the 2014 election.

But Ardern is no Cunliffe – and this fortnight has cemented the fact (lest anyone needed reminding) that Collins is no Key. Caucus already had plenty of reasons to move on Collins; this week simply gave them one more.

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