The tom-toms are beating and, as incredible as it may sound, around National Party campfires the leadership of New Zealand's most popular Prime Minister is being questioned.

The questions are sparked by Judith Collins asking the oldest political question of them all: "Why not me?"

And why not? She's an aggrieved party. The Prime Minister dumped her from Cabinet when dirty politics allegations were swirling but didn't reinstate her when she was cleared.

On the backbench she has the time to plot and plan, to reach out to colleagues and party members, and she is free to put distance between herself and the John Key-led administration.

Advertisement

To us on the outside that distancing is the most obvious sign of the rumbling.

Key is keen on running up a new flag. Collins wants to stick with our old one.

Key is keen on polling. Collins is dismissive.

"Sometimes I think you have just got to stand for something," she wrote in a column contemptuous of present-day vanilla politics.

For Collins, politics should be about "a contest of ideas, policies and views". But Key's great strength is in staying away from ideas and in hugging the centre where the voters once happy with Helen Clark live.

To Collins that's soggy ground. It makes for mushy politicians.

For her, politicians must be "fearless, creative, interested, questioning and most of all listening to the electorate".

That statement from the back bench is a hard hit on a third-term leader without directly appearing to be so.

Advertisement

To make the observation is to force the comparison. There should be no doubt that Collins is tilting at leadership.

But it's the flag referendum that's causing the rumble and making the tom-toms beat. National is a conservative party. For such a party, being patriotic and having pride in the flag are motherhood and apple pie. Their virtue is a given.

Dumping the flag is Labour policy, not National's.

National members naturally wonder why they are winning elections only to implement Labour Party policy, especially when it involves dumping the flag under which Kiwis have fought and died and that has united our country for generations. It is fertile ground on which to sow discontent, especially among diehard supporters.

Collins is setting herself apart. She is the only National MP to have a political brand distinct from the present Key-led party. That's no mean achievement.

She is working assiduously to reinforce her brand and lift her profile.

As a minister unjustly dismissed she is perfectly placed to do so. As a backbench MP she can speak her own mind free of the responsibility of Government.

Hers is an excellent plan on paper. To effect it Collins needs the support of her colleagues. But here's where she falls short. She hasn't any.

National MPs know when they are on to a winner. They have learned from Labour it's very easy to trash leaders but very hard to replace them.