By AUDREY YOUNG, political editor

A new whispering campaign is under way in the National Party caucus.

It's the one about strategist Murray McCully having instigated a whispering campaign against Nick Smith, the former deputy leader who stepped down yesterday after three weeks' stress leave.

The whisper goes that Mr McCully was so appalled that new leader Don Brash backed Dr Smith for the deputy leadership over Ilam MP Gerry Brownlee that as soon as Dr Smith had been bundled out of the building Mr McCully and Mr Brownlee began a campaign to ensure that Dr Brash would never want him back.

Dr Smith's press release does not mention Mr McCully, the East Coast Bays MP, or Mr Brownlee.

Dr Smith said he was "disappointed that during this period a campaign to oust me was conducted in the media, while I was under the leader's instructions to make no comment".

At first yesterday Mr McCully tried to deflect attention, saying he was certain he was not being referred to in Dr Smith's release.

Then he decided to defend himself: "The whole idea that some people might have been disaffected by the outcome of the deputy leadership contest and then decide to engineer circumstances where it got relitigated is just so preposterous it doesn't deserve to be taken seriously."

But that was it. Mr McCully, the media-wise strategist (he is the partner of journalist Jane Clifton), is not prone to giving oxygen to stories he wants killed.

Dr Brash gave Mr McCully the title of parliamentary assistant to the Leader of the Opposition, formalising and elevating a role he has played for the past three National leaders.

But Mr McCully was often described as being "on strike" after National's 2002 election disaster. Some say it is because he was loyal to former party president Michelle Boag who copped much of the blame for the result.

Others say it was because Mr English would not become the assertive leader Mr McCully wanted him to be.

Members of the National caucus knew that the formerly close relationship between Bill English and Murray McCully had soured when at one caucus meeting Mr McCully accused him of being the sort of leader who wanted to make the caucus hold hands and sing Kumbaya.

It was a change, said one MP, from him reading newspapers during the caucus meeting, or absenting himself altogether.

Mr McCully's reputation for always being on the winning side of a coup is wrong.

He has played a curious role in the latest coup - the result of a secret ballot three weeks ago in which he won't say how he voted.

It is known that late in the piece Mr McCully agreed to be Mr English's deputy, should he have won the ballot.

It is also understood that the week before the vote Mr McCully tried to convince Dr Brash that Mr Brownlee should be his running mate as deputy after Dr Brash's first choice, Simon Power, spurned the offer.

The fact that Dr Brash has embraced Mr McCully so strongly since the leadership vote stirs suspicions in the English camp that Mr McCully was not neutral in the leadership change and fomented unrest among the younger ranks.

Others say that is unfair, that Mr McCully's approach to Dr Brash was in the interests of the party. He was appalled at Dr Brash's tactic of a "public" coup and predicted that forcing a close secret ballot could be divisive.

Only Dr Brash will know to what degree his losing confidence in Dr Smith was because of Dr Smith's own strange behaviour at Parliament in the aftermath of the bitter coup, and how much to the advice of others.

What is certain is that he will need all the advice he can get to unify a whispering caucus.

The strategist

McCully's record on National's regime changes:On Shipley rolling Bolger, 1997: losing side, openly backed Bolger.

On English rolling Shipley, 2001: winning side, English's numbers man.

On Brash rolling English, 2003: no side, unhappy with English but opposed Brash's public coup.