Rodney Hide and Don Brash want to lead ACT. That much we know; the rest is cloudy. So let's look at some of the core questions, battles and potential strategies...
It'll come down to the numbers. It always does. The Brash "coup" seems to be struggling to gain traction, up against Hillary Calvert's and, crucially, John Boscawen's initial loyalty to Rodney Hide. But that's not to say the temptation to change leaders won't be strong given Hide's woes in Epsom and ACT's continued low polling.
While most of the headlines in the recent TVNZ and TV3 polls were focused on Labour, it seems some on the right were more exercised by ACT's numbers, stagnant on one percent support. (Check out ACT's poll tracking fort he past 3.5 years on our Poll of Polls). There's also been talk in political circles that polls in Epsom have Hide languishing well behind an unnamed National candidate - well behind.
When your party relies utterly on that one seat, it's only natural that bad polling in that electorate would prompt some hard questions. Sure, Epsom is always National's to keep or give away - remember, it has the highest National party vote of any seat in the country. But ACT has finally realised it needs to, well, act.
It seems that reality sunk in a few months ago, with Hide and Boscawen offering Brash a spot as MP and then the co-leadership. But offered an inch, the former National leader has asked for a mile - that is, the leadership all to himself. Which is disrespectful, but hardly surprising, given that Brash comes from the pure economics crowd who have despaired while Hide has led ACT into more populist politics, alongside the Sensible Sentencing Trust and Coastal Coalition.
Brash and others have been looking into starting another free market party, at first with the likes of Colin Craig and Muriel Newman, more recently without them. But as anyone in business knows, it's easier to acquire than to launch from scratch. And if you're ACT, better to absorb the competition than enter a death-wrestle with it. So if you're a non-partisan free marketer, Brash is a no-brainer.
The problem with that scenario, however, is one Rodney Hide. He won't give up without a fight; he may well prefer the death wrestle, or to bring the house down on everyone. And I suspect National would rather work with Hide than with Brash, for the simple reason that it's always easier to deal with a politician than a zealot.
Yet as odd as it may sound, both Hide and Brash might both be happy enough where things stand as of today. Hide is keeping silent, hoping Brash will hang himself and optimistic the MPs that owe him so much will stand by him. Brash is milking all the publicity he can, knowing that whether he wins ACT or starts a new party, he's at least rebuilding his public profile.
For now, it's very fluid. It would take Brash ten minutes to apply to join the party with an online form and a credit card. His application would then be considered by the board at its meeting this weekend. The fact he hasn't applied suggests he wants to be confident of the result before tying his horse to ACT's wagon.
So what about Epsom? National's electorate chair Aaron Bhatnagar hasn't committed yet, but is the frontrunner for the seat. He's also keen to see what he calls "a quality National candidate" stand. That is, he reflects the mood amongst some Nats in Epsom that they've done enough favours for ACT and Hide's time is up.
Better to reclaim the seat; if you still need ACT let Boscawen win Tamaki by doing to Allan Peachey what National did to Richard Worth in 2005.
The problem with all this politicking is that voters don't necessarily play ball. Even if John Key continues his nudge-nudge message begun last week, in which he said National would simply focus on the party vote in Epsom, it may not be enough to guarantee Hide the seat. It may require Key offering Hide an explicit endorsement. Even then, who knows? And would a National PM really endorse another party?
What if, for example, Winston Peters chooses to stand there? Or another Brash-led right wing party? And what about John Banks, who could probably win Epsom regardless of favours from National or ACT?
If National voters are confident enough that their party will win a second term, might they be willing to disobey orders or toy with their own leaders? I was reminded today of how National lost Rangitikei to Bruce Beetham in 1978, not because the people of Marton and surrounding areas loved Social Credit, but because they wanted to make a point. It was a point that cost National the seat for three terms, almost losing the 1981 election along the way.
Brash now has to strategise. He's wondering whether to defer his presentation to the ACT board until an extraordinary meeting next week. But who is helped by this dragging on another week or two? That's a crucial question. Another is whether he could win another seat, with or without more nudges and winks from National. As Brash himself points out, he has lived in Tamaki and, for a long time, on the North Shore.
Let's roll out a few others: Should Peachey be given a comfortable list place and levered out of the seat? Should a patsy be chosen in North Shore, opening the door to Brash? Could Brash take these seats on his own merit? Or is his personal brand too damaged by The Hollow Men, the exclusive Brethren, and his affair? Is there room for two parties to the right of National?
And they're just off the top of my head.
When all is said and done, the most pressing ones are whether Hide can find any more favour in Epsom or whether a Brash-led party would have a better shot, there, or even in another seat. Because it comes down to numbers. The polling companies, no doubt, will be out in force, while Boscawen et al are under immense pressure.