Margaret Thatcher's secret weapon was a black Asprey purse that she used as a magnificent prop when she wanted to show she meant business.

Thatcher's male ministers knew something was up when Maggie (the Prime Minister to them) manoeuvred her purse like a battleship on a war table towards the centre of her own Cabinet table.

Former French politician Francois Mitterand paid Thatcher a famous back-handed compliment saying she had the "eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe".

National's Judith Collins is the nearest New Zealand has to a politician in the Thatcher mode.


This year alone she has claimed the scalps of ACC chairman John Judge and other board members, faced down two opposition MPs in a defamation slug-out and now thrown all her weight against former Canadian judge Ian Binnie by hanging him out to dry over the quality of his advice on the vexed issues surrounding David Bain's compensation claim.

It's not obvious that Collins uses fashion accessories as political props. But it's a reasonable bet that with just one arched lift of an eyebrow and her trademark lip curl this Cabinet minister would have no difficulty conveying to her colleagues (and Opposition politicians for that matter) what she really thinks on issues even before she sails forth with a cutting verbal putdown.

Dame Jenny Shipley - who had the moxie to orchestrate a bloodless coup against Prime Minister Jim Bolger when she was out of New Zealand - would have run Collins close when it comes to sheer political stealth.

But as Collins yet again demonstrated this week, her "take no prisoners" style is far more dangerous when it comes to gaining political scalps than that of any other Kiwi politician in Parliament today. NZ First's Winston Peters tries it on. But Peters has lost the fire of old. John Key can be cutting. But Key tends to be sportive in his delivery rather than deadly. He's still the politician who likes to be liked.

Labour has plenty of firepower. But much of it is lined up behind leader David Shearer rather than in the front row.

All of this is by way of asking whether Collins has what it takes to be National's next leader.

Unless Key does decide to stand down ahead of an election, there will clearly be a contest. Even if the PM does fall under the proverbial bus, other National MPs, including Bill English and Steven Joyce, are potential candidates.

The National faithful like Collins. She plays them adroitly as is obvious at party conferences where she schmoozes with aplomb.


But where her biggest strengths lie are in her ability to stand her ground when she's convinced she is right, as she has ably demonstrated with the Binnie report; her ability to politically manoeuvre opponents off the chess board with ruthless efficiency, as she showed with Judge and two other ACC directors; and the guts to demolish a Cabinet predecessor's policy positions where she believes he has over-egged the legal response, as with former Justice Minister Simon Power.

So, it's obvious that Collins is not frightened to make hard calls. To her, chewing out Justice Binnie was not a difficult thing to do.

She may have been an "Auckland tax lawyer" as Binnie sniped in retaliation for the swipe at his own prowess, but Collins also served as president of the Auckland District Law Society and vice-president of the New Zealand Law Society before entering politics - two positions with far more experience and more cachet that Binnie accorded her.

The problem is the issues surrounding both Binnie's report and Auckland QC Robert Fisher's review are so complex that few journalistic commentators, let alone legal experts, have come up with a sensible way forward for resolving the issue.

Collins has said the Cabinet needs the best and most complete information to base its decision on and it's in Bain's interest to have his claim concluded as robustly as possible. "This is a matter of justice that must be seen to be done, and justice must follow a fair and proper process."

But does it really make sense to throw this back upstairs for the Cabinet to consider? Surely the interests of justice would be better served if Collins moved straight to the next stage and commissioned another independent report?

What is clear is that the Bain compensation issue will again move centre stage in the new year.

This is Collins' biggest political call to date. She has raised the stakes hugely.

There has been obvious suspicion that her actions in this affair were guided by the belief that Bain does not deserve compensation.

But the quality of the Fisher critique ought to persuade her critics that she was justified in asking for a review of the Binnie report.

There remain issues as to whether at the process level Bain has been treated fairly.

Collins' real test will come with the quality of the final Cabinet decision-making. It's a high-stakes game that she must win if she's to be National's next leader.

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