As New Zealanders wait with bated breath how the National Party drama unfolds this morning, there is a temptation to speculate if Judith Collins' shocking demotion of Simon Bridges overnight is a pre-emptive strike against a potential challenger or a punitive, disciplinary action against an errant caucus member.
In a display of a much-famed ruthless streak, Judith Collins demoted Simon Bridges and stripped of all portfolios over an allegation of serious misconduct relating to an interaction with a female caucus colleague many years ago.
It is now widely reported in the media that the female MP who laid the complaint is Jacqui Dean.
There are reports in media that Dean will be joining Leader Collins and Deputy Leader Dr Shane Reti in the 10 am press conference to address the circumstances around Bridges' abrupt removal.
This development came at the backdrop of rising speculations of Simon Bridges considering a tilt at the top job – a position from which he was rolled over last year by fellow MP from Bay of Plenty Todd Muller.
Earlier in the day, there were reports of an awkward caucus meeting scheduled for late in the evening where Bridges and his loyalist could possibly have mounted the challenge to Collins's leadership position.
How did the event unfold last night?
Collins shocked the nation by issuing a written statement saying, "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."
As everyone scrambled to comprehend the scope of the fast-developing story, it also emerged that the National MPs were likely to be heading for an awkward caucus meeting after a poll showing Collins had lost the support of both – the 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 in that poll by 40.7 percent of voters, where Collins was languishing at just around 23 percent votes.
In the light of emerging facts, it has become more and more apparent that this sudden demotion of Simon Bridges is more a pre-emptive strike than a punitive action against an errant caucus member.
To mount a disciplinary action on a case reported years ago, and for which Bridges was already spoken to, by the then Leader Bill English does not hold a lot of ground and shows that Collins has increasingly felt cornered by the growing rumours of Bridges' impending leadership challenge.
Throughout the last year, after his roll-over by fellow Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller, Bridges has almost reinvented himself, particularly on, and with the help of, social media gathering some popular support.
Even yesterday, Bridges has posted on his Facebook page thanking people for visiting him at Whitcoulls Lambton Quay and buying his book with him in picture signing the book.
On the contrary, Collins' own popularity has taken a consistent hit with the last 1News-Colmar Brunton polls revealing that she was languishing behind ACT Party Leader David Seymour by a mile.
It would be interesting to watch today how things unfold, with several caucus members already having spoken to media anonymously that Collins' decision to punish Bridges for comments made a few years ago are out of character.
Until more details emerge, it is fair to say that Collins' move appears more a pre-emptive strike than punitive action.
Although, to her credit, it is fair to say she now has the advantage of the first mover, and it would be interesting to see how Bridges would respond.
A lot will depend on how effectively he can hold the numbers overnight.
Regardless, it has become increasingly evident, to being almost a given, that National cannot come out from lockdowns unscathed.
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