Aside from Judith Collins, there are five other viable contenders for the National Party leadership, writes Matthew Hooton. Here, he assesses their merits.
Simon Bridges still has a good chance of remaining Leader of the Opposition until the election.
This is not because National MPs support him but because they cannot agree on his successor. They know that if they roll him, the only credible replacement with the party and public right now is Judith Collins.
Talking with today's National MPs, one can almost hear the echo of British Conservative MPs 79 years ago: "Yes of course we'll lose the war with Chamberlain, but anything might happen with Churchill."
The same concerns about Boris Johnson kept Theresa May in office for the past year.
Balancing that, the echo of New Zealand Labour MPs in 2013 is also audible: "Sure, David Shearer is a disaster, but do you have any idea how bad it could get with David Cunliffe?"
The logic MPs in these circumstances are forced to confront is whether it is better to have a leader who will definitely lose or take a risk with one who will probably lose but might have a fighting chance.
National MPs' concerns about Collins range from the symbolic to the more substantial: namely, her right-wing "Crusher Collins" persona and a perception she has been too brutal with some of them on occasion.
The first is more myth than reality. Collins was typecast by John Key as a law and order conservative and carried out that role with aplomb.
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But privately she is grateful to Bill English for taking her more seriously, giving the former commercial lawyer economic roles in revenue, energy and resources.
She is certainly no more right-wing than Bridges and much less so on social issues like gay marriage.
Complaints about her robust treatment of fellow MPs have more merit but she was among the most popular ministers in the previous government among staff and officials in the Beehive and bureaucracy.
She also suffers from residue from prior controversies involving Whaleoil blogger Cameron Slater and leading exporter Oravida, of which her husband was a director.
For these and other reasons, the prospect of a Collins leadership is opposed adamantly by inhouse detractors such as Maggie Barry, David Carter, Nikki Kaye, Anne Tolley and Michael Woodhouse.
The vehemence of such opponents would make it difficult to execute a managed leadership change such as that from Don Brash to Key in 2006 or Andrew Little to Jacinda Ardern in 2016.
There are five alternatives to Collins.
As the current deputy leader, Paula Bennett has a right to be considered and some National MPs may regard a solo-mum-to-prime-minister narrative to be attractive. On the downside, she too can be brutal towards colleagues and was involved in her fair share of controversy during the Key Government.
Amy Adams was runner-up to Bridges in 2018 before being appointed Finance Spokesperson. She currently seems a certainty to be Finance Minister in the event of a change of Government, whether under Bridges, Collins or anyone else. It would be a big call for her to put that at risk by overtly challenging for the leadership.
In any case, it is not clear after being beaten in 2018 by Bridges that she feels she is suited to frontline retail politics, especially against Ardern.
In contrast, Kaye can boast of having beaten Ardern twice in the Prime Minister's home-ground of Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, Westmere and Waiheke Island. The Auckland Central MP is backed by Auckland's liberal left and has won the endorsement of Herald columnist Simon Wilson, but there are questions about how she would be received in National's rural and provincial heartland.
Two businessmen complete the alternatives.
Todd Muller has been a member of the party since the late 1980s, perhaps longer than any other member of caucus. National knows him back-to-front but the 50-year-old is also one of its newer MPs having pursued a successful business career, including in senior roles at Zespri and Fonterra.
While ranked a lowly 31 by Bridges, the climate-change spokesman has worked successfully across the aisle including with the Prime Minister and Climate Change Minister James Shaw on the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill.
He has a cordial relationship with Winston Peters going back to the 1980s. These things may count against him if National is determined to go for broke and try to govern alone, as might his Jim Bolger-style personal and political conservatism.
Mark Mitchell also has an impeccable National Party background, being the grandson of Sir Robert Muldoon's defence and police minister Frank Gill. The 51-year-old inevitably had to maintain some distance from the party when a police officer for 13 years but, like Muller, can also boast of a successful business career, in his case as a private security contractor in Iraq for eight years after the 2003 US invasion.
Like Collins, Mitchell's relationship with Slater and controversial PR strategist Simon Lusk counts against him in some quarters, as do concerns about what use a Labour Party dirty-tricks campaign or the likes of Nicky Hager could make of his time in Iraq.
None of these five has the national name recognition of Collins but she has little chance of getting to the top job while they have aspirations of their own.
Until a ticket emerges with one willing to serve as deputy to another, Bridges is safe.
Right now, it seems National MPs prefer to sleepwalk to certain defeat in 2020 the way Phil Goff's Labour did in 2011, instead of taking the risks Labour did in 2014 and 2017 with two very different candidates, Cunliffe and Ardern respectively.
- Matthew Hooton is managing director of PR and corporate affairs firm Exceltium.