If you want to make a National MP nervous, ask what they think about Judith Collins. A bit of panic enters their voices. A few will tell you, but none will do it publicly. Some even run away. Even the Prime Minister doesn't want to talk about Collins. In fact, the only person willing to talk about Collins at the moment is Collins herself.

Collins has been talking about Collins everywhere. There was her turn on comedy show Seven Days, where when it was observed her initials were the same as Jesus Christ's, she quipped "never underestimate the power of resurrection". There was BackBenches, weekend morning current affairs shows and newspaper profiles. Last week she was on the cover of the Woman's Weekly, alongside husband David Wong-Tung - the first piece the notoriously private couple have done together. She's been getting more personal coverage than any minister, let alone a Government backbencher.

She was the only National MP to comment at length on the Prime Minister's ponytail pulling. There was fleeting controversy over an expensive door on the second floor of Parliament and then claims she was the ringleader in what some dubbed a "backbench rebellion" over the proposed Health and Safety reforms.

Few in National will speak openly about Collins but they are certainly speaking behind closed doors and many are suspicious as hell.


National MPs have a number of theories for Collins' media splurge. Her own answer to this is short and simple: "Because [the media] ask me to."

She says nobody has suggested she rein it in and she doesn't know if it has made people nervous. "I haven't asked. It's not for me to worry about."

Others think she is trying to paint herself as the wronged party in the eyes of the public or to force the hand of the Prime Minister as she tries to get reinstated as a minister. The most interesting theory is speculation about profile-building for a secret Plan B - a tilt at the Auckland mayoralty should that ministerial role be withheld. Collins says she has been asked about it, but it is not something she is considering doing. "I have to rebuild my reputation."

Certainly no one thinks she still has a chance of being National's leader in the future, something even Collins appears to have given up all hope of. "Never. I'm not interested in it," she says. But there is a low-level concern her actions will at least lend to the perception of a faction in National, and that is a chink in its armour of discipline. Collins denies this: "There is seriously nothing sinister going on."

The responses of the backbenchers range from dismissal to outright laughter at the thought. "It would be a faction of one - herself," one backbencher observed. Nonetheless, all that talk of factions and revolts means it is dangerous to admit you are a friend of Judith Collins. The only name that crops up constantly is Maurice Williamson - one of the most right-wing of National's caucus. Collins at first refuses to answer when she is asked who she gets on with. "I'm not going to name them all and have them being harassed." She ends up naming a few people she gets on well with. Most are backbenchers.

She works closely with the other South Auckland MPs - even the Labour ones. She is friends with the Mad Butcher, Sir Peter Leitch. When contacted he said he had known Collins for years and she was a loyal friend - as was the Prime Minister. Only one of the names is a minister - Health Minister Jonathan Coleman. Collins herself doesn't mention Maurice Williamson, but when his name is put to her she says "Yeah, Maurice." She says she and Key have a good relationship - direct and upfront. "And when he's asked about my loyalty he's never had to ask me because he knows that I'm absolutely 100 per cent behind him."

This reason Collins gives for her media activity is a human one rather than a machiavellian plot. It is a chance to correct the record. She is trying to redeem herself in the eyes of the public after the scouring she was given last year. Before the last election, Collins' husband had asked why she didn't give it all up and get a job outside politics. She felt that if she had left at last year's election, she would have for evermore been one of those MPs who left with a cloud over her name.

"Of course there would have been. I take my reputation seriously. I came in with a good reputation and when there are false accusations I felt that was something I was going to clear up. I do not have a quitter mentality."


That was the inquiry into whether she had colluded with blogger Cameron Slater to undermine former Serious Fraud Office head Adam Feeley. That inquiry was unable to find any evidence of wrongdoing, and Collins has taken that as exoneration.

Being reinstated as a minister would go a long way to helping her restore her reputation and she openly admits she wants to be welcomed back.

However, some in National believe Collins' burst of media activity could do her chances more harm than good. One observed that until recently she had given no reason not to reinstate her. That had changed.

Eyebrows raised when she used the proprietary "my caucus" when talking about her relations with the backbench. She says now she should have used the word "our". Her defence was that the reporter's question referred to "your caucus" and she was simply repeating that back in her answer. She is also going against the convention for backbenchers to leave it to the ministers and Prime Minister to talk on major issues.

However, her failure to swiftly and effectively dampen down claims she was leading a backbench revolt against the Health and Safety Reform Bill got backs up - other MPs saw it as an attempt to take all the credit for the Government's backdown on the bill.

The news of a great Backbench Uprising over the health and safety reforms earlier this month came as a surprise to the backbenchers. "Like everybody else, I only found out from the news," one said. Some in National believe Collins did fuel the suggestion. "She knew how to shut that health and safety stuff down. She could have done it in one sentence. It's not like she was naive or just making a mistake."


Collins denies it was she who seeded the idea she was leading the charge. She had spoken about the decision to delay the bill because she was qualified to do so. "I really want to make a difference in this area in a positive way. So I've been a little bit concerned that there's been attacks on me for various things and I don't know where they've come from. I really actually care about people in the workplace."

There is little appetite among senior National ministers for Collins' return. But, as she points out, it is the Prime Minister's decision. "It's not a popularity contest. He decides. I can't do anything to influence him. So I'm just doing my job." Key has kept his counsel on this, saying only that she is one of a number of contenders should a vacancy open.

Key's trouble is that reinstating Collins could well result in an actual backbench revolt.

His usual practice is to use vacancies in his ministry to bring in new blood. Key has established clear pathways to the ministerial benches. The most common are via the Whip's office or as select committee chairs, especially the Finance and Expenditure Committee. It is how Key keeps that backbench on board - by keeping hope alive.

Collins herself sees no reason why she should lose out to new blood. She points to Nick Smith - who stood down in 2012 because of a letter of support he had written for ACC claimant Bronwyn Pullar but was subsequently reinstated. "Nick Smith, for instance, was brought back after a period of time even though there was no inquiry that cleared him."

But National is in its third term and there is no guarantee of a fourth, so the jostling for positions inevitably increases. That means resentment at missing out also increases. MPs also remember ministers such as Kate Wilkinson and Phil Heatley had done nothing wrong but were told by Key they had had a turn and time was up. "Judith's done almost six years already. She's had her turn," one said. Collins has also soiled her copybook - there were the lapses of judgment over meetings with Oravida where her husband was a director, the release of hacked messages between Collins and Cameron Slater, laid out in Dirty Politics. There was the lashing out at TVNZ reporter Katie Bradford over a personal matter - something Collins later apologised for. The inquiry into whether she was involved in undermining the head of the Serious Fraud Office was simply the excuse Key needed to send her packing.


But there are also dangers in keeping Collins on the backbench. One National insider noted a fear she could go rogue if she felt the door was closed completely on a return.

Collins says she didn't consider leaving politics for a minute after the maelstrom of 2014. "No. It's something my father used to say. You always go on your own terms - not other people's."

It appears to apply even if that other person is the Prime Minister. Asked what she would do if the PM asked her to leave in 2017 to make way for a new MP in Papakura, she is quite clear: "I've no interest in that." She points out Key has been in Parliament as long as she has. "I've been here for 13 years. That's the same amount of time as the Prime Minister. There are plenty of people who have been here longer than me."

Collins says she won't leave if Key does decide not to reappoint her as a minister. "Why would I do that? There's more to life than Cabinet. I find it fascinating that some people think once you've been in Cabinet you wouldn't want to be a backbench MP." She says there is a certain liberation that comes from being on the back bench "within reason, because of course I'm always loyal to the party and I'm always loyal to the Prime Minister".

She remains grateful to the voters of Papakura for giving her a 5000 vote majority in last year's election despite it being "the worst of times" - the Dirty Politics book had dropped and an inquiry into her was under way during the election campaign.

As a backbench MP she fills her time with extra-curricular activities. For Collins, this consists of "studying and reading." Not fiction - on her desk is a pile of books on corporate accountability. Then there is the extramural heath and safety course, in which she was "thrilled" to get an A+ for an assignment on toxicology. The next is on fires and explosions. She's looking forward to that one.