Current National Party leader, Simon Bridges.
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Dr Bryce Edwards

Simon Bridges’ hold on the National Party leadership is still in trouble, with destabilising factors making his continued survival unlikely. I wrote about this several weeks ago, reporting that a series of gaffes and leadership mis-steps had set off a fresh round of questioning about whether Bridges can continue in the role – see: Simon Bridges’ beleaguered leadership

Since then there’s been nothing to suggest he will recover from a narrative that is turning against him. In fact, the narrative is only picking up steam. Politik’s Richard Harman has written about how “It is almost inevitable that Bridges will face a challenge; perhaps an informal backroom one first, then if that fails a full caucus spill” – see: Pressure increasing on Bridges leadership.

According to Harman, multiple sources have told him that Judith Collins “has the support of just over half the caucus to take the leadership. Politik has spoken to a range of National MPs and party officials on a non-attributable basis and heard pretty much the same story from most of them; something has gone wrong. There are questions about Bridges’ political judgement”.

In addition, “there is a list of charges against him which centre on his relationships with the rest of the caucus; his abrasive manner and his practice of confining decision making to a tight inner circle of MPs and advisors.”

Other political journalists have since confirmed National MPs are being flagrantly disloyal to Bridges and destabilising his leadership. According to Newshub’s Jenna Lynch and Tova O’Brien, “National MPs are speaking out against their leader and Newshub has been told of agitation behind the scenes. The National Party Caucus is now proactively coming to Newshub with concerns about Simon Bridges’ leadership, and Newshub has been told people are doing the numbers for Judith Collins. There are mixed views, but a number of MPs have told Newshub that Bridges’ handling of recent problems hasn’t been up to scratch, with one MP even describing it as ‘incompetent’.” – see: National MPs speaking out against leader Simon Bridges.

They say it goes further than just gossip: “As for any signs of a coup, on Tuesday MPs anonymously told Newshub: ‘It’s happening.’ One MP said: ‘For some time, MPs have been concerned about the direction of the leadership.’ Another described the caucus as ‘unsettled’, while another said ‘numbers are firming for Judith’.”

So when could a leadership coup occur? They say, “Newshub has been told if it does happen, it could move quickly or in the next three to four months. Newshub has also been told it could happen at caucus, or it could just be executed by a group of MPs behind closed doors.”

Then, to make matters worse, yet another bad opinion poll result was published. The 1News Colmar Brunton survey put National eight points behind Labour. Some commentators felt National’s 40 per cent rating was enough to keep Bridges safe. According to Henry Cooke, “It is the “4” before the poll number which is magic. The difference between 40 per cent and 39.5 per cent in a regular poll is a handful of people, but it is a hugely important distinction, psychologically. If National is above 40, even well behind Labour, it is still in serious running for the next election” – see: The magic number keeping Simon Bridges safe, for now.

Cooke also argues that Bridges’ position is bolstered by few contenders wanting to take over in the leadup to what could be a looming defeat in next year’s election: “the helpful fact that National were probably always doomed to lose the 2020 election, meaning plenty of contenders might be happy to watch him do so.”

1News’ political editor Jessica Mutch McKay supports the theory that the poll ratings mean survival for Bridges: “What I’m hearing when I’m speaking to MPs is that if he’s got a four in front of the party vote, he’s doing OK and can breathe a small sigh of relief”. She also says that while she “has noticed a language change regarding Mr Bridges” amongst National MPs, “we don’t get the sense there is a big move at the moment” – see: Desire among National MPs for stability may save Simon Bridges after latest poll dip.

Similarly, reflecting on National’s latest poll result, the Herald’s political editor Audrey Young says: “it has not sunk so low that it would force a leadership change yet. And no one would launch a coup on the back of a national tragedy which undoubtedly has had an impact on the polls” – see: Poll relief for Simon Bridges may only be temporary. Young does, however, suggest that the growing polling gap between Labour and National is a problem, and “it is easy to see that trend continuing.”

For Newsroom’s Sam Sachdeva, the problems go beyond poll numbers: “Bridges is simply not passing the sniff test; he has begun to resemble a clumsy, Clouseau-esque waiter stumbling from one disaster to the next” – see: Bridges looks for small mercies as slide continues.

Sachdeva mulls over whether Bridges is now capable of turning things around: “the Easter and Anzac break is a chance for him to step away from Parliament’s pressure cooker, reset his strategy and figure out how to best damage the Government rather than his own party. Unfortunately for him, there’s been little this year to suggest he’s capable of doing that – and once an Opposition leader starts to spiral (think Andrew Little) it’s difficult to pull out of that nosedive.”

Although National’s poor poll ratings are much better than what Labour normally received in opposition, the crucial problem is that the gap between the collective polling of the parties of Government and Opposition is now huge. This is the point made by Matthew Hooton on Friday, who says that the latest poll actually spells a disaster that National MPs don’t seem to be fully aware of: “Bizarrely, some on the centre-right seem to take comfort from the most recent 1 News Colmar Brunton poll — completed before Ardern took the CGT off the table — putting National and Act on 41 per cent. They seem to overlook the fact that this puts them a full 17 points behind Labour, NZ First and the Greens, who were on a combined 58 per cent. To put this in perspective, gaps of more than 15 points between opposition and governing blocs are exceptionally rare in New Zealand” – see: Jacinda Ardern on track for triumph in 2020.

The decision by the Government to abandon the CGT proposals also makes life particularly difficult for Bridges and National, and likely that the current administration will be easily re-elected next year. According to Hooton, “By and large, National MPs remain in denial about how hopeless their position is” and, “Sadly for centre-right voters, it looks as if National will need to repeat its trauma of 2002 and Labour’s of 2014 before it wakes up to the magnitude of the task and difficulty of the decisions required to become a viable alternative government again.”

If that column wasn’t bad enough, especially coming from someone who was previously supportive of Bridges, then Hooton’s column from the week before is even more important to the debate. In this, Hooton essentially calls time on the current leader in his devastating assessment of Bridges’ achievements so far – see: Simon Bridges runs out of mates.

Hooton, who is a National Party insider, paints a picture of National MPs plotting and openly discussing Bridges’ terminal leadership, and reports that “dissatisfaction with Simon Bridges has reached a critical point.”

It’s not only the poor poll ratings, the failure to foster any new policy stances, and the continued leadership mishaps, but a fundamental issue of personality and trust: “Bridges’ real problem is that, like the population at large, too many National MPs just don’t like him that much. When Bridges was revealed to have called National MP Maureen Pugh ‘f***ing useless’, the suspicion was that this was not an uncharacteristic lapse, but typical of how he speaks privately about too many of them. Publicly calling a long-serving National press secretary, who had even survived working in Nick Smith’s challenging ministerial office, ‘an emotional junior staffer’ further suggested Bridges doesn’t proffer the same loyalty to his team that he expects to be afforded.”

Bridges’ temperament is also under the microscope in Graham Adams’ column, Lack of humility is Simon Bridges’ fatal flaw. According to this analysis, “Bridges’ bullishness was mostly an asset for him when he first became leader in February last year.” But since then “his aggressively confident and self-assertive style” has failed to charm the public, and instead only landed the leader in more difficulties.

Looking back, Adams pinpoints when this should have been apparent: “his high-handed approach to those beneath him in the pecking order was clearly evident at his first press conference as leader when he indicated to his deputy, Paula Bennett, that he needed a glass of water. He pointed at a jug on a low table and uttered the immortal command — ‘Give us some water will you, love?’ Bennett — who just a few months earlier had been deputy prime minister and Bridges’ superior — looked flustered but she bent down and poured him a drink while he continued to hold court in front of the cameras.”

That bullishness was only display again recently when combating questions about his leadership – see Zane Small’s report, I’ll ‘absolutely’ be staying as National leader – Simon Bridges.

The media is certainly now putting the pressure on Bridges over his leadership. Broadcaster, Eric Young, pressured him last week about the apparent lack of public support that Judith Collins was giving to him, pointing out to Bridges: “She came on The AM Show just last week and refused to use you by name. She pledged her support to the leader of the National Party without once using your name” – see Michael Daly’s Simon Bridges pressed on his relationship with Judith Collins.

Attention is also now increasingly focused on the likelihood of Judith Collins taking over as leader. For the best report on the internal National caucus machinations around Collins, see Tova O’Brien’s Anti-Judith Collins camp within National Party may stop her becoming leader. She says: “Caucus is supposed to be a kind of hermetically cone of silence, so the fact that the caucus is leaking, the fact that MPs are proactively coming to us and agitating against Simon Bridges and the fact the people are doing the numbers for Judith Collins is a real problem for Simon Bridges”.

However, it is not clear that Collins has any claim on the leadership in the bag yet,  and O’Brien reports the existence of a growing Anyone But Collins grouping: “There are a lot of people in that caucus that just do not like her and do not want her to be the next leader of the National Party.”

In the latest Listener, Bill Ralston writes about the destabilisation of Simon Bridges, and appears to hope that he can hold on: “The prospect of Judith Collins rising to the top of National does not fill me with joy. To date, she has had a chequered career and there’s no reason to suppose that dark pattern will not continue should she become leader and, God forbid, prime minister.”

For Ralston, Collins is too reminiscent of Robert Muldoon: “both combative political personalities, both conservative, both ruthless. Dear Lord, no. I’ve lived through that once before.”

According to RNZ’s Guyon Espiner, the fear of Collins could be what saves Bridges: “If National is feeling cautious, that will help him. If they feel like taking a risk, that removes another reason for Bridges to stay. I have a liking for cricket analogies and I’ll end with one. Judith Collins is the next batter up. She has the pads on. She is a big hitter. She could crush, crash or burn. National needs to decide if it’s going to keep going with the night watchman or send in The Crusher” – see: Simon Bridges ‘entering the danger zone’ following popularity drop in polls.

And Matthew Hooton has an entirely similar cricket analogy: “What may save Bridges are continued worries about his only credible successor, Judith Collins. If National MPs fret that Bridges is a Blair Pocock, they worry that Collins is a Brendon McCullum. Give her the top job and there is a very good chance she’ll smash her opponents all around the park. But there is nearly as good a chance she’ll be out for a duck.”

Finally, how would Judith Collins go as National leader? For the pros and cons, see Toby Manhire’s Why Judith Collins should be made National leader (And why she shouldn’t), as well as my earlier column for RNZ, on The case for and against Judith Collins leading National.