Judith Collins and the Holy Grail

by Graham Adams / 22 February, 2018
Opinion
Judith Collins. Photo / Getty Images

Judith Collins. Photo / Getty Images

In her quest for National’s leadership, the MP for Papakura has presented herself as the mean, tough contender but she has also had Monty Python moments.

The world loves a trier but do enough caucus members love Judith Collins? The NZ Herald’s Audrey Young reckons only two MPs will support her in a caucus vote but will even that disastrous possibility be enough to crush the Crusher’s spirits? 

It’s true that she has garnered a lot of media support but unfortunately, National’s leadership is decided by the votes of its 56 MPs, not pundits — and most reputable commentators say she’s not doing very well in persuading her colleagues of her merits.

In fact, her campaign for the leadership of the National Party is starting to look like the famous scene from Monty Python and The Holy Grail in which King Arthur meets the Black Knight in the woods.

Arthur lops all his limbs off one by one, as the Knight yells: “I'm invincible!”

Arthur: “You're a loony.”

Black Knight: “The Black Knight always triumphs! Have at you! Come on, then.”

Collins made this sort of comparison inevitable when she told RadioLive not only that she’s the ”fun candidate” but that her idea of fun is “gladiatorial”. 

And even more so when she tweeted — in response to what she says was a Labour supporter’s complaint that she backstabbed Jacinda Ardern — “I stab from the front!” 

 

This is a bizarre example of chest-beating for a politician who aims to lead the National Party and become the nation’s next Prime Minister. Shouting “I’m tough!” is definitely Black Knight territory.

Of course, her claim of stabbing “from the front” is particularly risible too for anyone who has read Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics and his details about Collins’ links with Whaleoil blogger Cameron Slater.

And what are we to make of Collins’ claim that Amy Adams broke caucus rules by having a posse of fellow politicians accompany her onto the lawn outside Parliament to announce her candidacy? National’s chief whip, Jami-Lee Ross, told the media that no such rule existed. Is that a stab from the front or a wild swing that failed to connect with its target? Perhaps Collins should say, “I stab from the front but my aim’s shocking.” 

Adams responded graciously and calmly to Collins’ wild assertion about breaking the rules and made herself look like… well… leadership material. All Collins managed was to make herself look divorced from reality. Hello, Black Knight!

Collins sees herself — and wants us to see her — as a Warrior Queen, even though she has very few colleagues who want her to rule them. And there certainly doesn’t seem to be any party heavyweight backing her run at the top job. Why would they? The mouthy Collins is pitching herself as the best counter to what she describes as “a formidable opponent” (presumably to inflate Ardern’s scariness so she can better position herself as the only one who can slay her) but Bill English — dubbed “Boring Bill” by some — has already shown that National can do that. In the wash-up after election night, National got 44.4 per cent of the vote to Labour’s 36.9.

Even after the media frenzy over Ardern’s pregnancy and the publicity that a new government naturally garners, National still managed 43 per cent (to Labour’s 48) in the latest One News Colmar-Brunton poll

The real challenge for National before 2020 is not only to cling onto that support but to woo allies to get a National coalition government over the line. As “Stabber-in-Chief”, Collins seems extremely unlikely to replicate Ardern’s ability in that area and if anything is likely to alienate potential partners.

The other alternative is for National to get more than 50 per cent of the vote outright. But given that John Key and Bill English didn’t manage it with their centre-right policies, the chances of the right-wing, divisive Collins achieving it are slim to vanishing.

Although Collins appears to have few supporters in National’s caucus, her media campaign has captured the attention of a chunk of the party faithful, which may guarantee her a high placing in the new line-up, if only as a sop to the party’s socially conservative base.

And, as President Lyndon B. Johnson once put it: better to have her “inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in”.

Collins has certainly gathered a chorus of influential media voices — both left and right — cheering her on. Mike Hosking, Barry Soper, Cameron Slater, Chris Trotter, Rachel Stewart and Heather du Plessis-Allan have all sung her praises (although Hosking has now defected to the Steven Joyce camp). 

Left-winger Trotter sees it in terms of myth and destiny. In a column headed “Princess Stardust versus The Crusher Queen”, Trotter opined: “The expectation of a head-to-head contest between the Kiwi equivalents of Game of Thrones antagonists Daenerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister extends well beyond the boundaries of the political Right. Collins is one of those rare politicians who, like Rob Muldoon, are able to imbue their bids for leadership with a sense of political inevitability.” 

It’s certainly true that it is inevitable she will put her name forward in any leadership contest, but far less inevitable that she will win it, or even come anywhere close.

One obvious reason for Collins’ popularity with the media is undoubtedly because she’s a headline-grabber and appears to be good for the click-baity media business, which is often much more interested in politics as a bare-knuckle spectator sport than debating policy. And she answers questions directly, intelligently and succinctly (although she may regret telling Jeremy Wells on Seven Sharp that her favourite book is Gone with the Wind).

However, her tough-girl schtick wears thin pretty quickly. Anyone who has watched her square off against Phil Twyford on The AM Show with Duncan Garner will notice how easily Twyford manages to patronise her, in part because she’s so easily caricatured as a “right-wing, red-meat politician” as he has put it. She’s undoubtedly funny and impressively quick-witted but not particularly likeable. She comes across as one of the mean, catty girls you might like to talk to at a party for amusement but you wouldn’t want in your circle of friends.

When I was reading media reports about Collins’ bid for the leadership, I stumbled across a headline in the NZ Herald that surprised me because it was above a column written by that sober, veteran commentator John Armstrong. It read: “The only option — it has to be the ambitious, unpopular one”. 

When I Iooked more closely however it wasn’t about Collins but had been published in 2013 and was referring to David Cunliffe.

So we’ve been here before. And we know how that turned out. In 2014, Labour under Cunliffe had its lowest election result since 1922. The ABC campaign — “Anyone But Cunliffe” — is easily adapted to “Anyone But Collins” given her similar supreme belief in her abilities and the lack of a corresponding belief among her caucus colleagues.

Nevertheless, Collins is nothing if not indefatigable. Asked if this would be her last tilt at the leadership, she told RadioLive: “Only if I’m successful.”

The Black Knight would agree with that sentiment. As Arthur moves away with his men, having removed all his adversary’s limbs, the Black Knight yells: “Oh, I see. Running away, eh? You yellow bastards! Come back here and take what's coming to you. I'll bite your legs off!”

 

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