Judith Collins interview: Collins’ warning to National MPs and her own mistakes

National Party leader Judith Collins has a firm message for any MPs who might leak or backstab her: run personal vendettas and you don’t deserve to be in the team.

The party’s caucus will meet for the first time on Tuesday to digest the catastrophic election result, farewell the MPs who did not make it back in

and welcome the five newcomers.

Then the job to try to rebuild a devastated National Party will begin – including what could prove Collins’ biggest challenge: trying to restore discipline and unity in caucus.

Collins has pointed to a leaked email about a caucus disagreement in the weeks leading up to the election as “debilitating”.

“It is clear to me that when people see a leak, a major leak, against a party in the last two weeks of the campaign that they view that dimly. As did I.”

She said her job was to try to ensure the whole caucus was focused on winning in 2023.

“When an Opposition decides it wants to win, people start working together as a team.”

However, the message may not go down well in a caucus still raw from the election result and among some MPs who believe Collins’ did not show loyalty to previous leaders such as Simon Bridges, Bill English and John Key.

Collins said it was “foolish of them to think like that.”

“You don’t last in this business as long as I have, and hold the positions I have if you’re not working for the team.”

“They need to get their heads around the fact we are not here for ourselves, we are here for the people.

“If they don’t understand that, it’s unfortunate.”

“If anyone thinks we are here because we want to play games in this, they probably shouldn’t be here.

“What this election should have got through to everyone is this: if one of us falls, we all fall.

“Nobody can think their own personal vendettas or whatever is ever going to help them or the party.”

Asked what her own biggest mistake on the campaign was, she acknowledged she should not have let the comments she made about obesity drag on for so long.

“A few things I could have done better, by not going down the old distraction line. But that’s what I’m like, I say what I think. I didn’t always have to add to what I had said.”

National will now hold a review into the campaign, including the campaign strategy, and the role of the party. Collins said that would begin soon, once the board set it up.

A reshuffle could also be a way to try to secure unity – especially key positions such as deputy and finance – and help stave off any leadership challenges.

Collins said that would not be done until after the final count in a fortnight, and after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had put together her Cabinet.

Collins would not say if her current deputy and campaign chair Gerry Brownlee had offered to resign as deputy leader, but said if he did want to stay in the role she would keep him.

Brownlee is copping some of the flak for National’s performance and after losing his Ilam electorate is considering whether to step down.

“Discussions between Gerry and me are between Gerry and me. But any decision he makes, I will back him.

“He is feeling very battered. He has been a real rock for me, and someone I can always rely on.”

Collins had personally spoken to all those who did not get back into Parliament, and said she felt “very sorry for them”.

“There is now an opportunity for us to rebuild by 2023, but also to rebuild for our country. Democracy needs to have a strong Opposition, we should be the strongest Opposition we need to be. So my message is going to be ‘work hard, be humble’.”

Asked how she would reconnect National with its base, she indicated she would repeat the exercise MPs did after National’s 2002 election disaster.

Then, the MPs were sent out around the country – not just to their own electorates – to face up to the party’s volunteers. Collins said it was very important that the MPs did listen to the volunteers who had supported them through the election.

That step was also recommended by a senior National figure who was in Parliament after 2002, who told the Herald it allowed volunteers to voice their frustration, and drove it home to MPs just how little tolerance there was among the wider base for instability in caucus.

Collins’ first job will be to sort out her staffing: National will have to make do with a much smaller budget to pay for staff and resources. Political parties’ parliamentary arms are funded based on the number of MPs they have.

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