NATS IN CRISIS
* National Party leader Judith Collins demotes Simon Bridges for historical comments heard by MP Jacqui Dean
* After speaking to then deputy leader Bill English, Bridges apologised at the time for the comments - apparently related to a sex technique to conceive a girl
* Collins says she only heard about the incident for the first time and last night received the unanimous backing of the National board to demote Bridges
* Bridges - a contender for the leadership as Collins battles poor poll results - describes the move as "truly desperate"
* Collins faces losing leadership as angry National MPs speak out about her move - a no-confidence vote is set for 9am
National MPs are meeting behind closed doors, with leader Judith Collins expected to face a vote of no confidence after her "deeply disrespectful" decision to demote Simon Bridges.
The crisis caucus meeting began at 9am and was prompted by Collins' shock announcement last night that she had demoted Bridges over comments he made in front of fellow MP Jacqui Dean five years ago.
Several MPs have publicly declared today that Collins is not fit to remain as National's leader - with Bridges attacking her actions as "truly desperate".
It is understood Collins' leadership is in dire straits, with a majority of MPs believed to be in favour of dumping her.
Bridges himself may not go for the leadership today but some MPs want deputy leader Shane Reti to stay on as acting leader for a period of about 48 hours to allow more time for MPs to consider the issue.
The fast-moving developments follow the dramatic demotion of Bridges by Collins last night - allegedly for serious misconduct following a historic interaction with MP Jacqui Dean several years ago.
Bridges today publicly attacked a "truly desperate" Collins, who is also now under fire from many of her furious colleagues.
However a defiant Collins insisted she would still be the leader by the end of the day.
"It's a matter of principle. Every woman and every man should feel safe in their workplace.
"What is really important is that you don't deal with allegations by sweeping them under the carpet."
Arriving at Parliament today, Dean said she would be leaving her comments until the planned 10am press conference with Collins.
"I'll leave it until then," Dean said.
Nats fuming over 'deeply disrespectful' Collins
Collins announced Bridges' demotion in a release just after 9pm on Wednesday.
Her announcement blindsided her MPs, who will gather for a caucus meeting at 9am today. One MP described her actions as "deeply disrespectful".
Bridges today described Collins' behaviour as "truly desperate" and said it showed she would go to any length to hold on to the leadership.
There was a huge amount he wanted to say about what happened yesterday and how wrong it was, but he would talk to the caucus first.
He had clear views about what he thought should happen to the National Party. He planned to hold a full press conference as soon as possible after that. Caucus was meeting at 9am.
He had sought a caucus meeting yesterday, but said Collins refused even though she was still at Parliament.
She had finally agreed for MPs to meet this morning and he was looking forward to it.
The Herald understands Bridges has no intention of resigning.
It is understood the allegations of "serious misconduct" relate to crude comments Bridges allegedly made at a function about five years ago.
Bridges is understood to have been talking with a group of about three fellow MPs, including Jami-Lee Ross and Todd McClay, when Dean walked past and the Tauranga MP called to her and made the comment.
However, Newstalk ZB political editor Barry Soper told Mike Hosking he understood the comment Bridges made was not directly to Dean but she had heard it.
The comment related to a sex technique to conceive a girl, Soper said.
Dean complained about it at the time and Bridges was spoken to by then deputy leader Bill English.
Bridges had apologised, Soper said.
Dean, who is the MP for Waitaki and has been in Parliament since 2005, has been approached for comment.
'Judith Collins must resign', Nat MPs 'feral' over demotion
National MP Simon O'Connor - who is married to Bridges' sister - told Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking: "Judith Collins must resign".
He said her behaviour amounted to "bullying" and was damaging the party.
The allegations had to be looked at "but the way the leadership has dealt with this is beyond appalling."
He was surrendering his portfolios this morning: "I cannot work with Judith Collins."
O'Connor told Hosking that Collins' late-night press release last night was a shock and surprise and he hoped people "could see what was happening".
He hoped Collins would go today. He wasn't sure who would lead the party but it was now in a "terrible flux".
O'Connor said there were "messages being put through to media" that Collins wasn't going to go without a fight, referencing rumours that if she was to go it would not be with Bridges replacing her.
He said he rated Bridges but he and Jacqui Dean needed to talk fully and freely to the party about what had happened and he didn't have enough information about the allegations to make a call.
Mark Mitchell described Collins' actions as "deeply disrespectful" for demoting Bridges without briefing caucus.
He told Newshub that MPs, including Bridges, had been "blindsided" by Collins' statement. last night.
"Completely flying blind. No one has actually spoken to caucus and briefed us and talked us through it," he said.
"In my view, it was deeply disrespectful to the caucus and the caucus, we should have been brought together and it should have been discussed, and I am sure that will be one of the issues that will be raised [today] when the caucus meets."
Shadow Treasurer Andrew Bayly, a close Collins ally, would not say if he had confidence in Collins. "I'll make a comment after our caucus meeting. I think it's important as a caucus we talk about this first," he said.
He said he still had faith in his party, saying "it's a great party".
National MP Barbara Kuriger would not say she was proud of her party. She said she was "proud of members of our party".
"When you work your butt off every day you don't want to be standing round answering questions like this, so it's pretty disappointing."
Another MP, Chris Bishop, refused today to answer whether or not he would challenge for the National leadership.
He was asked repeatedly and answered by telling RNZ he was focused on ending MIQ.
National's Rangitīkei MP Ian McKelvie wouldn't say explicitly whether or not he supported Collins, but expressed concern around her move against Bridges.
"I'm extraordinarily uncomfortable with the whole manner in which this has been managed," McKelvie said.
On the leadership, McKelvie said the caucus would make a call in the coming hours.
"That's for the caucus to decide, but there's ways you behave in the world and ways you don't, and it's pretty clear to me that is what decides these things, and pretty quickly too."
Harete Hipango would not say whether she had confidence in the leader, and said some "cleaning up" needed to be done.
"I have had experience in such historic matters as a lawyer and this needs to be aired," Hipango said.
"I'm not disappointed. I'm of the view that there's some cleaning up to be done at this time," she said.
"I have confidence in what the National Party stands for which is the values of representing New Zealanders," she said.
Soper told Hosking today: "I've never seen anything so feral in the National Party as what I've seen overnight."
He said Collins could now face a vote of no-confidence at today's 9am caucus meeting.
Demoting Bridges was a "clear play" by Collins to sideline Bridges because he posed a leadership threat, Soper said.
Seymour: Nats' woes 'troublesome for New Zealand'
Act Party leader David Seymour said the turmoil in National "doesn't help" the right's ability to form the next government.
"It is two years to the election and obviously we have to do a lot of work between now and then. I think what people around the world want is stable democracy and functioning political parties and this doesn't appear to help very much to say the least."
Seymour said it was also poor timing given the pressure going on the Labour Government presently.
"I think it is troublesome for New Zealand ... especially at a time like this."
Seymour, who has been polling higher than Collins as preferred prime minister, declined to comment on if now was the time for Act to become the main right-wing party.
"We just focus on our relationship with voters. What happens with politics and National is what will happen."
He also declined to comment on who he thought would emerge victorious as leader.
"We just work with whoever we have to.
"I have worked with five different National leaders with varying degrees of success. I have worked with Judith and I will continue to work with whoever the National Party selects."
'What the hell is going on?'
Former National MP Jonathan Coleman said it was a mess and very disappointing for party supporters. "They see this and think, 'what the hell is going on'."
There were a lot of ambitious people and oppositions could end up tearing themselves apart which was what was happening now, he told Newstalk ZB's Hosking.
Coleman said MPs were losing sight of the fact that people didn't care what was happening within the National Party and were worried about Covid, their businesses, travelling and getting back to normal life.
People were drawing the conclusion that National was not ready for government and that was not good.
Collins was a talented person, but you could not lead by eliminating all opposition, he said.
She had made a great contribution at times, but this was not a great day for her or the party.
Coleman was an MP at the time Bridges' allegedly made the comment and had never heard about it.
He had texted a few people last night and said senior MPs were totally blindsided by the demotion and had no idea what was going on.
"They are tearing themselves apart. This is a great party which still has a future."
He said National needed to "pull it together" for the sake of the country and its supporters and focus on the issues that mattered. The Government had raced through the Covid legislation and they should be talking about that. "It's pathetic frankly and very sad."
His mates were saying they would like to vote for the National party, but would actually vote Act right now.
A new leader would start turning it around and he thought Christopher Luxon had the talent.
"Luxon may not be the complete package, but he was a contribution to make."
There was never any ideal to step up in politics, but now might be it," he said
"I think they've got to seriously look at him."
If others hadn't come through right now then he thought their time had probably passed.
Bridges' comment 'far short' of harassment
Political commentator Ben Thomas says any allegations about harassment or intimidation have to be treated very seriously - within the National Party, Parliament and society as a whole.
But he said the incident at the centre of the whole situation fell "far short" of what would be regarded as harassment or intimidation and would probably better meet the threshold of "vulgar or crass pretty easily".
Thomas told TVNZ's Breakfast he understood the nature of the comment allegedly made by Bridges was of the crass kind.
"The version that I'd heard is that Bridges made a fairly crass, fairly vulgar statement about, um...trying to conceive a daughter and the ways that various folk remedies that you can tip the odds," he said, laughing uncomfortably.
But whether that is true or not, was not yet known.
Thomas said that would be what the caucus would be talking about today in their meeting - establishing if the comments were true in the first place.
He said the timing was "extremely" convenient for National Party leader Judith Collins, who is potentially facing a challenge to her leadership.
"Unless she can produce some really credible evidence that there was serious misconduct ... and that it was not dealt with at the time ... she will have to be very concerned."
Thomas said the chance Collins would remain the leader of the National Party is "pretty slim".
'National Party will not tolerate harassment and intimidation'
In a written statement last night Collins said: "This evening, with unanimous support of the board of the National Party, Simon Bridges, Member for Tauranga, has been demoted and relieved of his portfolio responsibilities.
"The decision follows an allegation of serious misconduct relating to Simon Bridges' interaction with a caucus colleague."
It comes as speculation rises that Bridges was preparing to roll Collins as leader of the party.
It is understood Bridges and the National MPs who back him tried to call a caucus meeting on Wednesday night but Collins blocked it.
Some MPs are furious at Collins' move, saying it was a "ugly" and "f***ing ridiculous", and a clear bid to halt any leadership bid by Bridges by dredging up remarks from five years ago.
The written statement from Collins said the incident related to comments made by Bridges to a female caucus colleague at a function a number of years ago.
"Having been made aware of the seriousness of the complaint for the first time and the ongoing distress this has caused the complainant, I was left with no option but to immediately demote Simon Bridges and relieve him of his portfolio responsibilities," Collins said.
"This decision has not been made lightly. However, the seriousness of the situation demands a swift and decisive response.
"Under my leadership, the National Party will not tolerate harassment and intimidation of any person.
"Members of Parliament and staff should be able to conduct their duties at all times without feeling unsafe or intimidated, and all deserve to be treated with absolute respect by their colleagues in all situations."
Other caucus colleagues reacted with surprise, when approached by the Herald. One said it was a "complete stitch-up" of Bridges by Collins.
National MPs were already expected to likely have an awkward caucus meeting today after a poll showing Collins had lost the support of both National voters and the country at large.
A Newshub-Reid Research poll asked whether Kiwi voters preferred Bridges or Collins to lead the National Party.
Bridges was backed by 40.7 per cent of voters, with Collins having the support of just 23.3 per cent - the remainder didn't know.
Bridges, 45, is the MP for Tauranga.
A former Crown Prosecutor, he has held the seat since 2008.
Bridges is also a former Transport Minister and Energy Minister, and the leader of the National Party from 2018 to 2020.
As Bridges' popularity took a hit in 2020, he was ousted as leader by fellow Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller.
It is not the first time Collins has shown a ruthless streak - in June, she called an emergency late-night caucus meeting of MPs and forced former leader Todd Muller to announce he would resign from politics after she learned he had bad-mouthed MP Harete Hipango to Newsroom.
At the time, Collins said she would not tolerate MPs' ill-discipline and bad-mouthing each other.
The Herald understands there will be a press conference at 10am today with Collins, Deputy leader Shane Reti and Dean.
Bridges on Wednesday posted on his Facebook page thanking people for visiting him at Whitcoulls Lambton Quay and buying his book. He was pictured signing books.