The National Party looks to be kicking a leadership spill down the road, for now. That means Judith Collins has time on her side to stop her death spiral, writes political editor Jo Moir

Two polls on Wednesday got National MPs’ phones ringing hot over the past 24 hours.

Half the calls were from their own colleagues questioning where to from here and the other half were from journalists with the same question.

Those MPs spoken to by Newsroom didn’t see a scenario where leader Judith Collins would be challenged while Auckland is still in alert Levels 4 or 3 and caucus meetings are conducted via Zoom.

But there was also little denial that the numbers were being done for a possible challenge, even if only informally.

On Wednesday, a Taxpayer’s Union Curia poll had National on 21.3 per cent (down from 30 in July) while Talbot Mills Research (the traditional Labour pollster) had National slightly higher on 26 per cent, but also down two points.

The two polls were carried out from September 5 to September 9 and August 31 to September 6, respectively.

The problem for National MPs is while they take Talbot Mills Research (formerly UMR) with a big bag of salt – happily writing it off when the cookie doesn’t crumble their way – it was their own pollster, David Farrar, who delivered the more horrendous Curia result.

The polls are a wake-up call and with Colmar Brunton and Reid Research likely to follow suit in coming weeks, it could get worse for National.

All these polls have done is reinforce the message that National is disorganised and off script, the headlines circulating for the best part of a month.

Arguably, the more interesting part of the Curia poll was the favourable vs unfavourable scores.

There’s no doubt the only person being even remotely considered to replace Collins is Simon Bridges 2.0

While Bridges has done a decent job of recreating his brand and profile on social media, it’s clear from the Curia poll it hasn’t translated beyond that – his net favourability rating is still woeful and in the doldrums alongside Collins.

But in the same way Little still wouldn’t make a good Labour leader it’s likely Bridges still wouldn’t make a good National leader.

Collins’ net favourability (favourable minus unfavourable) was in the negative late 30s, while Bridges was only slightly better, in the negative mid 30s.

The only person to score a positive net favourability was Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and both ACT leader David Seymour and National backbencher Chris Luxon scored negative ratings, albeit ahead of Collins and Bridges.

Bridges’ brand might be on the rise with those most politically engaged but talk to traditional National voters in the regions and when you mention Bridges, they make the same exhausted groaning noise they did when he was rolled by Todd Muller in May last year.

Like former Labour leader Andrew Little, Bridges has adopted a more carefree, easy-going persona.

But in the same way Little still wouldn’t make a good Labour leader it’s likely Bridges still wouldn’t make a good National leader.

The fact Bridges net favourability is still so low when there haven’t been negative headlines about him in the way there was in the lead-up to his leadership fall just shows many Kiwis don’t think he has changed at all.

There are those in the party who think he can hold a clear, consistent line on an issue in a way Collins is struggling to, but there’s no guarantee he will actually lift the party in the polls.

Bridges’ polling path got cut short because the liberal wing of the party rallied and got the numbers to push Muller over the line when Bridges’ National Party was still at 29 percent support.

It will never be known whether Bridges might have ended up taking the party to the low-20s as well, if given more time to derail.

Collins is in a position where she has time – something Bridges ran out of when his own party circled on him.

“It’s entirely over to her to stop the death spiral.” – senior former National MP

Not only is Parliament in recess this week but it’s also operating at a restricted level that means it could be a month before Auckland MPs are back attending caucus meetings.

That gives Collins breathing space and even when her full caucus does return to Wellington, MPs will likely allow a period for the air to clear from a lockdown crisis before spending time looking internally again.

It could give Collins a month or more to change the narrative, if she’s prepared to listen to the criticism and take it onboard constructively.

There’s no shortage of issues to concentrate on but there’s a big difference between Collins saying she’s focused on the vaccination rollout and actually being focused on the vaccination rollout.

For the most part she’s spent the last fortnight focused on name-calling, accusations of media bias and any other number of distractions.

With recess this week and a chance to cool down, Collins could attempt to hit the restart button next week and dig upwards out of her leadership hole.

But given Newsroom understands she hasn’t apologised to her caucus for any of her chaotic messes, let alone acknowledged she has been off-script, it’s difficult to see her turning a much-needed corner.

One senior former National MP told Newsroom Collins has a chance to stop trashing the party’s brand, learn the lesson from the commentary and concentrate on the issues.

“It’s entirely over to her to stop the death spiral,’’ the person said.

Once the numbers start getting formally counted, Collins will need to have convinced enough in the caucus that while she isn’t the answer to the National’s Party woes, she isn’t as bad as what a return to Bridges could be.

It could be a leadership vote of the lesser of two evils.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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