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National's leader Todd Muller has quit for health reasons, plunging the party into turmoil just 67 days before the general election.
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Although it's hours away from tonight's crisis meeting, National MPs have already started landing in Wellington.
Muller, the Bay of Plenty MP, had been in the job for just 53 days before calling it quits at 7.30am today.
Former leader Simon Bridges has consoled Muller and described the job as a "very tough role".
"My thoughts are with Todd Muller & his family. Opposition Leader is a very tough role & I wish Todd and his family the best for the future," Bridges wrote on Twitter.
Speaking to media at Wellington airport, Bridges said Muller's announcement was "really sad".
"It's a tough job being leader of the opposition."
Bridges said his thoughts were with Muller and his family.
He said he was also thinking about: "What a tough time it is for the National Party".
He said there were some difficult discussions to be had today.
Asked if he would put his name forward for the leadership, he ignored the question.
When pressed on this question, Bridges said: "These are discussions we need to have... at a difficult time".
Speaking to RNZ at Auckland Airport, Judith Collins would not say whether she's ruling herself in or out of the running for the top job.
She said she was leaving the decision up to the caucus and she felt "really sorry" for Muller.
Party's "compassion and love" with Muller
“Our thoughts are very much with Todd and his family at this difficult time as is our compassion and love for Todd,” Mrs Kuriger said.
MPs are understood to be shocked by Muller's decision to resign.
A statement was released at 7.33am today, saying the 51-year-old was stepping down as leader "effective immediately."
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a statement that she just heard about Muller's resignation: "No matter what side of Parliament you're sitting, politics is a difficult place. I have passed on my best wishes to Mr Muller and his family".
The MP for Bay of Plenty was leader was for just 53 days after rolling Simon Bridges. Early contenders to replace him are former deputy and now acting leader Nikki Kaye, Collins, Amy Adams, Mark Mitchell and Bridges.
"It has become clear to me that I am not the best person to be Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the New Zealand National Party at this critical time for New Zealand," Muller said in his statement.
"It is more important than ever that the New Zealand National Party has a leader who is comfortable in the role."
Muller said the role had taken a "heavy toll" on him personally.
He intended to take some time out of the spotlight to spend with his family and to restore energy before reconnecting with his community.
"I look forward to continuing to serve as a loyal member of the National Party team and Member of Parliament for Bay of Plenty."
REACTION IN SOUTH
Dunedin MP Michael Woodhouse said this morning that Muller's resignation was "a huge surprise".
"My thoughts are with Todd and his family, The party will regroup behind the new leader and work hard through this campaign."
National Taieri candidate Liam Kernaghan said he was notified of Mr Muller's decision through a phone call this morning and it was completely unexpected.
Mr Kernaghan - who just last week hosted Mr Muller in Dunedin - said what National would do now was up to its MPs, who meet in an emergency caucus this evening.
"I'm devastated for Todd and for his family, who my thoughts are with at this time.''
DOWN IN POLLS
Newstalk ZB political editor Barry Soper told Mike Yardley that Muller's resignation was "absolutely astounding", even though Muller was having a hard time in the fallout of the Hamish Walker issue.
"Muller has realised how hard leadership is when the focus of the media's on you. He believes the National Party should be led by someone who is more comfortable in the role.
"It is a bombshell so close to the election. It's extraordinarily unfortunate for the National Party."
Soper believes the National Party will look to Judith Collins as leader, but says it will be somewhat of a poisoned chalice for her.
On July 8, Muller's press secretary declined an interview with Newstalk ZB Drive host Heather du Plessis-Allan because he was "having a cup of tea and a lie-down."
The latest UMR poll, leaked to the New Zealand Herald, had National on 32%, down 2 percentage points and well behind Labour on 53% support.
National was on 38% support in the latest 1 News-Colmar Brunton poll on June 25, but the party's own internal polling at the end of June had National stagnating at about 34% for the past three weeks.
Muller had been at 13% in the preferred PM stakes in the 1 News-Colmar Brunton poll.
PETERS: MULLER A GOOD MAN
NZ First leader Winston Peters said he had sympathy for Muller.
"Todd is a good man, unlike most of his colleagues he does have commercial experience, and he will bounce back," Peters, who is also Deputy PM, said in a statement.
"Leading a divided and incompetent caucus would have tested even the best leader. The National caucus now has the unenviable job of selecting its fourth leader since the Coalition Government took office."
Peters then put the boot into the rest of National's caucus.
"The National caucus, like too many parties in Parliament, lacks business experience, life experience and political experience. Heaven only knows who will be the next cab off the ranks selected to lead such a dispirited and incompetent lot.
"Todd never had a chance given the fault lines of ambition, personality, and ideology that run deep through the National Party caucus. National has demonstrated to voters as clearly as it is able that it cannot govern itself."
Peters said National's "instability and hubris takes it out of the running" in the upcoming election.
COVID DETAILS LEAKED
Todd Muller's integrity had come into question last week when he was repeatedly questioned about whether the party's heath spokesman Michael Woodhouse had received any confidential information from former party president Michelle Boag and he replied that Woodhouse hadn't when he knew that he had.
He later said that he thought he was being asked about whether it was the same information that was given to Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker and he had been "transparent".
Muller and Kaye mounted a challenge for the leadership and deputy leadership of the National Party in May.
An emergency caucus meeting on May 22 to determine the party's leadership, resulting in Bridges and former deputy leader Paula Bennett losing their positions.
Muller has encountered a baptism of fire as National leader, including criticism over having a Donald Trump make America Great Again hat and fallout over a perceived lack of diversity on his frontbench.
Then the party was consumed by scandal over the leaking of Covid patients' private details.
The fallout led to Clutha-Southland Hamish Walker resigning from the party last week and Boag leaving the National Party.
The election will be held on September 19.
COLLINS BEST FIT, SAYS DUNNE
Former MP Peter Dunne told Newstalk ZB this morning that senior MP Judith Collins was in a strong position to take the leadership, even though this year's election was likely to be lost.
"It's staunching the wound that's important... she's probably best-placed to do that."
Backbench MPs would today "be looking to a leader who can give them the best protection" at the election, he said.
Dunne believed one of the biggest beneficiaries could be the Act Party as voters looked for right-of-centre alternatives, given National's troubles.
On Muller, Dunne said he had "clearly good intentions". He was "a good honest person, but the job proved to be far too much for him," Dunne said.
"There was frustration with the situation beforehand (with Simon Bridges) so any change had to be a good one even if it wasn't well thought through."
Right-wing political commentator Ben Thomas told Newstalk ZB that Muller's resignation was a surprise.
"There was nothing resignation-worthy of the events of last week."
Thomas speculated there might be a "smoking gun" coming.
"He was clearly struggling with caucus discipline," said Thomas, referring to the Hamish Walker scandal.
Thomas believed National now needed someone straight out of the box – including possibly Simon Bridges.
"I think he will fight for his job back."
The other leading contender was Collins, Thomas said.
HANDLING OF COVID LEAK SCANDAL
• National's Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker sends The New Zealand Herald and other media a list containing names, dates of birth and isolation facilities of then 18 active current Covid-19 cases, to use as evidence he was right is saying cases were coming from India, Pakistan and Korea but does not reveal the source.
• Weekend Herald reveals there has been a privacy breach in that it has been sent details of current Covid cases without revealing who or why it was sent. Two other media outlets reveal they have been sent the same information. None publishes the info.
• Health Minister says there will be an inquiry.
• National's health spokesman and Dunedin MP Michael Woodhouse recognises the description of the information similar to info sent to him by party stalwart Michelle Boag in four emails between June 21 and 25.
• Woodhouse texts Boag to say he had not sent his info to the media. Boag says she knows because the info is different . The number of active cases Woodhouse was sent in June were lower than the 18 active cases Walker was sent but Boag does not tell him it was Walker.
• National leader Todd Muller and Woodhouse strongly criticise the Government for the privacy breach.
• Lunchtime: Walker contacts Muller privately to confess to having forwarded Covid-19 patient information to the media.
• 3pm: Govt announces independent inquiry to be led by ex-Solicitor General Michael Heron QC.
• Muller spends day in Dunedin with Woodhouse.
• Walker issues statement about 5.30pm admitting he sent the patient details to media but says it was to expose the Govt's shortcomings at keeping data.
• Boag issues statement moments later admitting she sent the patient details to Walker. Resigns from Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust CEO, in which capacity she got the data from the Ministry of Health.
• Muller issues statement saying it was an error of judgement by Walker, that he has lost his spokesmanships, that he must co-operate with the inquiry and that he, Muller, will not be commenting further until the inquiry is over. Resignation is not mentioned.
• Woodhouse tells Muller he, too, has received similar information from Boag in June but dint do anything with them.
• Woodhouse deletes the Boag emails.
• Muller says he is angry with Walker and has referred the matter National's board of directors.
• Walker announces retirement from politics before board deselects him.
• Woodhouse contacts Heron to say he was sent similar information to Walker from Boag.
• Muller has standup after speech and rejects a suggestion multiple times Woodhouse might have received similar information from Boag.
• Woodhouse publicly says he received patient information from Boag on four occasions between June 21 and 25 but did not do anything with it or tell anyone about it.
• Boag resigns from the National Party.
• Muller denies having made misleading statement the day before regarding Michael Woodhouse. "From my perspective, we have been well-managed and transparent about it."
• Muller resigns as leader of the National Party.