Current National Party leader, Simon Bridges.
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Political Roundup: Simon Bridges’ beleaguered leadership

by Dr Bryce Edwards

How long has Simon Bridges got left as National Party leader? Days, weeks, months? Or will he be able to do a Helen Clark and hang in there, proving his critics wrong? Anything’s possible, but there are further signs that his demise as leader may happen sooner rather than later.

Current National Party Leader, Simon Bridges.

Questions about Bridges’ survival as leader have been ongoing over the last year, and especially after the Jami-Lee Ross scandals. Other hiccups and consistent poor polling have meant that there has been continued speculation about whether he’s up to the job.

This pressure isn’t just from the media and political commentators. Bridges continues as leader for only as long as his colleagues have confidence in him. And there have been signs this week that they are running out of patience, with some talking about recent bungles being “the last straw” for Bridges’ leadership.

Audrey Young’s review of the week in today’s Herald, contrasts the Leader of the Opposition with the Prime Minister – see: Another lopsided week for Jacinda Ardern and Simon Bridges. She begins by noting that “Bridges’ support within his own caucus seems to be shrinking at the same rate as Ardern’s reputation is growing internationally.”

The problem is this: “Essentially, Bridges is getting a reputation as a leader who compounds problems when he steps in, rather than clearing them up, and of attracting people with similar traits.”

There are two problems Bridges has dealt with badly in the past month, and they could end up hastening his downfall.

Issue One: Bridges’ handling of the “emotional junior staffer” incident

On the day of the Christchurch terrorist attacks, a National Party staffer deleted a petition about the UN global migration compact from the party’s website. The alleged shooter had written a reference to this on his gun. When asked about the petition being deleted, Bridges first told the media that it had actually been removed much earlier as a part of a routine clean-up, and then later blamed an “emotional junior staffer” for taking down the petition in response to the killings.

Politik political journalist Richard Harman has now revealed that “The National party staffer described by Leader Simon Bridges as a ‘junior’ is, in fact, a former Ministerial press secretary who has played a crucial role in the party’s agricultural and environmental policy areas. Politik has learned that he is Brian Anderton who was worked for the National Party in Parliament for six years. But he is now on leave and the subject of a Parliamentary Services investigation” – see: Who the National junior staffer really is.

Harman reports that Bridges’ management of this has caused problems in the caucus: “Those comments have angered some caucus members. In the background, within National’s caucus, there is support for Anderton and concern at the way the whole issue has been handled by the leader, his office and his closest MP advisors.”

Audrey Young also reports that this issue is causing unhappiness with National MPs: “The employment dispute with press secretary Brian Anderton, however, is seen by many National MPs as having been mismanaged by Bridges and his closest advisers. The changing answers from National about why its petition against the UN Migration Pact was taken down after the mosque attacks have been widely construed as lies rather than misunderstandings. There has been little attempt by those in the thick of it to set the record straight. The vacuum has been replaced by accusation and speculation likely to be much worse than the reality.”

The charge against Bridges is one of “disloyalty” according to Young: “The dispute with Anderton is similar to the Maureen Pugh issue. In the eyes of the caucus, the slagging off of a colleague (revealed in secretly recorded tapes by Jami-lee Ross) as useless was unforgivable disloyalty. Many MPs believe Bridges has not shown Anderton the loyalty that should be accorded to long-serving staff members who make an error. It is his dealing on smaller personal issues such as Pugh and Anderton that have given Bridges’ colleagues reason to question his judgment.”

Issue Two: Bridges’ handling of the National Party culture report

Bridges is also being criticised for his handling of the internal review into National Party culture, set up by Bridges himself in the wake of the Jami-Lee Ross scandal. The report is apparently now complete but not being released, and there are questions about the process.

Audrey Young describes it like this today: “The so-called inquiry into National’s culture ordered in the aftermath of the Jami-lee Ross saga appears to lacked rigour. No one knows who did it, no one can find anyone who was spoken to for it, Bridges says it is a party matter, and the party says it will wait until the Debbie Francis review into bullying at Parliament before it issues any comment on its own review.”

This follows on from a 1News report earlier in the week which said “MPs are in the dark over its findings and it appears they also weren’t consulted” – see: National Party review of its women’s safety finished but MPs apparently not consulted.

Bridges and his party are refusing to say if any National MPs were actually interviewed for the report. 1News reports, for example: “Arriving at Parliament today, National’s women MPs 1News spoke to were clear they had not been contacted for the culture review. They included the National MP at the heart of the Jami-Lee Ross affair, Sarah Dowie, who said: ‘No, look, and I can’t talk about that at the moment’.”

This report will continue to be a focus of public interest, and questions will continue to be asked about Bridges’ management of the process. Attempts to deflect the issue as one for the party president to deal with are unlikely to cut it.

Continued poor poll results

Bridges leadership woes aren’t helped by concerns about the popularity of the party under his management. Every new negative opinion poll that comes out is another nail in the coffin of Bridges’ beleaguered leadership.

The latest Reid-Research poll hasn’t received much publicity, as it was part of a poll package commissioned by Business NZ, and not a regular television-commissioned survey. Nonetheless, it contained more bad news for National, showing Labour charging even further ahead. According to the poll, Labour has climbed about two percentage points to 49.6 per cent, putting them 8 percentage points ahead of National on 41.3 per cent. This is the biggest difference in quite some time. The details are in Claire Trevett’s article, Poll puts Labour support up after mosque attacks but tax is back in debate.

Given the Prime Minister’s skilful handling of the Christchurch terrorist aftermath, a boost for Labour is hardly surprising. Nonetheless, the poll reinforces the trend-line that National fears, which suggests there is a problem and that Bridges’ leadership isn’t working.

Of course, bad poll results earlier in the year essentially put Bridges on notice. I covered all of this in early February after the last Reid-Research poll was released – see: Is it time for National to burn Simon Bridges?. In this column, I pointed to others arguing that it was probably too early for National to panic, and the poor poll was possibly a rogue one.

At this time, veteran political journalist John Armstrong laid into the media for turning against Bridges on the basis of just one bad poll, calling it “folly” – see: Media script requires Bridges to end up as dog tucker. Armstrong predicted that the media having now pronounced Bridges a dead man walking, would “do its darnedest to make sure he does become exactly that – dog tucker. That is the ugly truth now confronting Bridges in his continuing struggle to keep his leadership of the National Party intact and alive.”

However, Armstrong did concede that the National caucus would eventually have to make a decision about Bridges’ leadership: “One day, however, the National caucus will have to determine whether the current leader’s predicament is ever going to improve or whether it will just keep getting worse. This week that day drew just that much closer. Bridges’ troubles evoke memories of Jim McLay’s stint as National’s leader back in the 1980s – memories which are best buried as soon as they arise.  McLay currently holds the unfortunate record for being the shortest serving leader in the party’s history. It is a record Bridges is in danger of breaking.”

McLay was National leader for about 14 months from November 1984 to March 1986. Bridges has about two weeks until he safely surpasses McLay’s term and will at least be saved the indignity of being the shortest-serving National Party leader ever.

National Party insider Matthew Hooton also wrote back in mid-February that: One poll is not enough to unseat Simon Bridges. Here was his main point: “Make no mistake: if there are too many more polls like Newshub’s on Monday then Simon Bridges will be toast. The problem is not Bridges’ preferred Prime Minister ratings. He could go to zero as long as National was on track to limit Jacinda Ardern to a single term. The concern is the suggestion National is now six points behind Labour, a result completely unacceptable to the party’s MPs, activists, supporters and donors.”

Hooton concluded that National MPs were saying “it would take several 41 per cent polls by other news organisations for leadership chat to move beyond the hypothetical.” Indeed, a few days later a 1News Colmar Brunton poll came out showing National had dropped four points to 42 per cent, while Labour had gone up two points to 45 per cent. What’s more, as with the Newshub poll, Bridges was struggling to compete with Judith Collins in the preferred prime minister stakes.

Bridges’ difficulties

As John Armstrong correctly argues in his column, Bridges has had an uphill battle upon becoming leader, which is barely acknowledged by critics. For example, “No account was taken of the difficulty of taking over a political party which has been thrown into the irrelevance of Opposition after having called the shots from the Government benches in Parliament for nigh on a decade.”

Furthermore, Armstrong says Bridges and his party have had difficult strategic and ideological terrain to fight on: “His ability to make an impact is in part down to a dilemma he faces. To be seen to be making a difference, he needs to come up with something different and distinctive policy-wise. Any divergence, however, from the centrist ethos of the John Key-Bill English era risks alienating the many ‘soft’ National voters who were drawn to the party by the pragmatism and relative moderation exhibited by Bridges’ two immediate predecessors. Bridges thus has to proceed with caution. Recasting National in his mould will take time. But time is a commodity he simply does not have.”

There were signs of Bridges’ leadership and cut-through growing in the first couple of months of this year. Peter Dunne believes that, prior to 15 March, National was getting the better of the Government on a number of important issues such as KiwiBuild, and the capital gains tax debate was giving Bridges a sense of purpose and relevance – see: Bridges once again on a quest for relevance.

But there’s no doubt that the events of Christchurch have changed the political environment significantly. This, together with some important missteps from Bridges, means that his leadership is under more internal pressure than at perhaps any time since he took over.

Finally, if you’re wondering if the poor poll results have triggered an existential crisis for the National Party leader, then you’ll enjoy Steve Braunias’ Secret Diary of Simon Bridges.