While Judith Collins’ loyalists lost their seats, her known critics in Caucus have seen their personal premium with voters increase at the weekend.

Denise Lee joined her parents at their retirement village in Maungakiekie to watch the rugby test on TV. Her mum baked a family favourite, cheese rolls. For failed election candidates, Sunday was a chance to lick their wounds; for successful candidates like Lee it was a long-awaited day off with family, before returning to work today.

After the rugby she went home to do the washing. “I washed – again – the same pair of jeans I’ve been wearing for pretty much 19 weeks. Eek!”

It’s been a long time on the hustings and on the street corners for campaigning candidates. But for most electorate MPs, it’s also been a welcome chance to return home from Wellington and focus single-mindedly on their constituencies.

To be fair, Lee role as the party’s spokesperson on Auckland issues (she was previously a city councillor) has meant she has been able to stay closely engaged in local matters.

Election advertising on ‘crash corner’ in Onehunga. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

She has campaigned for road safety improvements, and security cameras, and community patrols; she coordinated 150 community volunteers from across the political spectrum to make more than 3,800 phone calls to elderly folk during lockdown. “I turn up to every meeting and I stay to the end,” she says.

“I would perhaps just say something else: campaigns are completely unique because people open up and start talking to you. I have learnt of hopes, horrors, loneliness, and triumphs that confirm for me all over again that I’m in my dream job.”

An unexpected lesson in civics education

I took my three young sons with me when I went to vote at Onehunga Library and Community Centre. We spent a good 15 to 20 minutes in the booth, trying to reach consensus on the two election questions and two referendum questions.

It was a geeky civics education lesson. The 5-year-old sat cross-legged on the worn grey carpet, looking bored, while the older two worriedly pondered leaders’ two-tick entreaties, the sanctity of human life and mind-altering substances. 

I was voting in Maungakiekie, where boundary changes had pulled in a chunk of the old red-tinged Mt Roskill electorate (including our street). And with National polling badly nationwide, things didn’t look good for their incumbent Denise Lee.

Worst of all, right at the start of the voting period, an email to fellow National MPs was leaked in which Lee criticised leader Judith Collins’ “incredibly poor form” and “poor culture” in bypassing her, as spokesperson, when announcing an inquiry into Auckland Council.

Should National MPs challenge Judith Collins’ leadership at tomorrow’s caucus meeting? Click here to comment.

Yet anecdotally, people I’ve talked to in Maungakiekie – and indeed, around New Zealand – seemed increasingly willing to distinguish their electorate vote from their party vote; the big parties’ “two ticks” campaigns didn’t always resonate. For some, splitting their vote seemed like a way to set aside tribalism and instead acknowledge the work of different parties and candidates.

And surprisingly, as the tide was going out fast for National, Lee was one of the few to increase her personal vote this weekend, from 43.3 percent in 2017 to 44.4 percent this year.

Notably, her personal vote was 64 percent better than the National party vote in Maungakiekie, this election. Others with high personal premiums were Mark Mitchell in Whangaparāoa (42 percent), Simon O’Connor in Tāmaki (41 percent) and former leader Todd Muller in Bay of Plenty (37 percent).

By contrast, perceived Collins loyalists like Chris Bishop and Collins’ deputy Gerry Brownlee lost their seats – in Brownlee’s case, the previously impregnable Ilam.

National won just 26.8 per cent, compared to Labour’s 49 per cent – the result means National will lose 20 MPs.

Despite being openly critical of the leader’s policy and strategic decisions over the past few days, both Mitchell and former leader Simon Bridges have ruled out any leadership bid at present. “Absolutely not, it’s not on the table. It’s the furthest thing from my mind,” Mitchell told Q+A yesterday.

Bridges slammed the lack of direction in the party’s leadership and said MPs had no idea what their campaign messaging was meant to be, but he did not signal any tilt on the leader’s job again.

Judith Collins hit back, telling the media National’s internal polls had the party as high as 39 per cent before the second Covid-19 lockdown; she pointed the finger at a lack of party discipline, particularly the leak of Lee’s email criticising the leadership. “That leak cost us five points,” Collins said.

Collins said there was no excuse if MPs didn’t know the party’s strategy and messaging; the daily emails were being sent out to candidates and it was Bridges’ fault if he was confused.

It’s been said that the strength of Labour’s vote was a personal endorsement of Jacinda Ardern’s leadership.

Was it also the case that the collapse of National’s vote was a stinging indictment of Collins? Did voters punish Collins’s loyalists, and reward the candour of those MPs who criticised her? 

“I honestly don’t know,” says Lee. “The leftie twitterati talked a lot about it but I never sensed it was a thing on the ground. I’d prefer to surmise that it was three years of hard work and consistency. Many, many people in our community don’t follow politics that closely.”

It seems that in coming weeks, more of National’s shrunken caucus may choose to distinguish their personal political brands from that of Judith Collins.

A test for her will be tone of MPs’ background briefings going into tomorrow’s caucus meeting – and whether they demonstrate greater discipline when they emerge after the meeting.

Nobody is publicly predicting an immediate challenge to Collins’ leadership, but neither is anyone backing Collins’ promise to lead the party into the next election. She was a pinch hitter, brought in at the last moment when there was no other option.

But her leadership does not look like a sustainable solution to rebulding and uniting a strong National caucus and party over the next three years.

Denise Lee at “crash corner” in Onehunga, where she successfully lobbied for a roundabout to prevent accidents. Photo: Farah Hancock

Back in Maungakiekie, Denise Lee is preparing to head down to Wellington for Tuesday’s National party caucus meeting. Once they finish farewelling those who fell by the wayside this weekend, there will be a lot of empty seats in the room.

Lee makes it clear that her focus, for now, is on her “dream job:” in the electorate and not on the cut and thrust of Wellington politics.

“That people from all over the political spectrum think I’m approachable and accessible and they can talk to me is the only mandate I’ll ever need,” she says. “We are creating community together, one conversation at a time.

“The corresponding votes are just a bonus.

“I don’t know how my local life will ultimately translate into the cut and thrust of the nationwide political scene but I don’t care. It’s who I am and I’m not losing who I am to disingenuously seek a bigger audience or score a media worthy point.

“The answers to what we face as a nation are right here in Maungakiekie, they always have been.”

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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