Nicola Willis strikingly absent from Uffindell report

Nicola Willis’ distance from the Sam Uffindell saga raises questions about whose political brand is more important to the National Party – hers or Christopher Luxon’s.

Only three people from National saw the full report by KC Maria Dew into past behavior of Tauranga MP Sam Uffindell – leader Christopher Luxon, party president Sylvia Wood, and Uffindell.

Strikingly absent from that list was deputy leader Nicola Willis, who was more vocal than most when Luxon launched an independent investigation into serious allegations made by a former flatmate of Uffindell’s.

She told media she felt “pretty yuck” after hearing of new allegations of Uffindell’s flatting days at Otago University, including a prominently featured coat hook displaying women’s underwear as trophies.

It was an emotionally charged reaction in contrast to Luxon describing it as “not great”.

Willis also recoiled at the details of the King’s College incident where Uffindell took part in physically beating a younger student with bed legs.

As a mother of four children, she said she found the idea of ​​her own 12-year-old son being subjected to that kind of bullying “deeply upsetting”.

One of the long-established roles of a party deputy leader has been to take on the pastoral care of the rest of the caucus and be across any concerns individual MPs might have.

When Uffindell was suspended from caucus while an investigation was carried out, it was former leader and Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller who wrapped his support around Uffindell and personally drove him from Wellington back to Tauranga.

Having been forced out of the caucus himself during Judith Collins’ leadership of the party, Muller certainly had experience of the alienation Uffindell would be feeling.

Willis played no role in the care of Uffindell during that period – on his reinstatement to caucus on Monday he thanked Wood for her constant contact during the five weeks he was suspended.

Uffindell had been suspended from caucus, not expelled, meaning there was no real reason Willis shouldn’t be the one doing welfare checks.

But by then she had already made it clear she felt deeply uneasy about the allegations made against him.

Luxon backed himself into a corner when he made such a premature call and the headlines have dragged over the course of a week because of that naivety.

The Uffindell investigation has been the first real test of the new National Party leadership, which until two months ago had been enjoying a fairly scandal-free run.

Much has been made of the differences between Luxon and Willis – one is a social conservative with very little political experience, the other is a liberal feminist who has learned under Sirs John Key and Bill English.

The differences have been held up as the ticket to a winning formula with their balancing each other out and offering different world views.

When Luxon came under pressure for his anti-abortion stance, he used Willis’ pro-choice stance as a defense against attacks on his leadership.

Yet when the Uffindell report came back to the party president, the only other person it was shared with to form a view on how to deal with the matter was Luxon.

Willis, who has more political experience than most, which was excluded from the conversations and decisions about what conclusion would ultimately be presented to caucus.

Wood had already confessed to making a bad judgment call when she decided Uffindell’s past wasn’t of a high enough bar to tell the leader about, yet she was the only sounding board the politically green Luxon had.

Willis’ political brand is high – in Friday’s mood of the Boardroom, 73 percent of respondents agreed she was a credible future finance minister while several chief executives pointed to her as a future Opposition leader and Prime Minister.

Sullying that reputation with the Uffindell saga wouldn’t have done her any favours, but it also leaves the impression that protecting her brand is more important than sheltering Luxon.

With no report, executive summary, or even terms of reference to gauge Uffindell’s behaviour, the public has been asked to trust Luxon and Wood.

If Willis had more involvement in that process, it’s also possible Luxon wouldn’t have made the political mistake of preemptively declaring that the terms of reference and report wouldn’t be released in any form at the conclusion of the investigation.

Luxon backed himself into a corner when he made such a premature call and the headlines have dragged over the course of a week because of that naivety.

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