Current leader of the National Party, Simon Bridges.
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Current leader of the National Party, Simon Bridges.

The National Party heads into its annual conference in Christchurch this weekend amidst continued speculation about its leadership, whether the party can win in 2020, and questions about the ideological direction of the party. 

This week’s leaked opinion polling results won’t help the mood, and it won’t help Bridges’ hold on the leadership. Last month the Newshub Reid-Research poll put National on only 37 per cent. Such a low number would normally have ratcheted up talk of Bridges’ demise, except for the fact that TVNZ’s Colmar Brunton poll came out the same night, showing National was incredibly buoyant, and in fact had overtaken Labour, on 44 per cent.

That’s why this week’s leak of UMR’s polling was significant. This also put National on 38 per cent, suggesting that terrible Newshub poll was probably the correct one. You can see details of the poll here in Tova O’Brien’s report: Labour’s secret internal polling reveals National below 40 percent. She explains why her media outlet is reporting on the leak of an internal poll: “The data was not leaked by the Government. Newshub would not normally run an outside poll, but three years of data like this hasn’t been leaked to us before.”

And this morning Newshub have published further information from the UMR polling, showing that 60 per cent of those surveyed have either an unfavourable or very unfavourable opinion of Simon Bridges, compared to 26 per cent who are favourable – see: Labour Party poll leak: Simon Bridges’ favourability drops again.

Other journalists also reported on the rumoured polling numbers, with Barry Soper saying the Labour-commissioned UMR poll put Labour on 42 per cent, the Greens on 9 per cent, and “New Zealand First has also increased slightly” – see: Can Simon Bridges survive another unfavourable poll?

According to Soper the leaked poll was likely to give Bridges another push: “it’s National that’s bleeding and it looks set to haemorrhage, with growing whispers within the party that it’ll be Simon Bridges’ blood being spilled before too long. The party has dropped beneath the psychological barrier of 40 per cent, now sitting on 38. It’s the focus groups that’ll concern National, with Bridges having about as much traction as a bald tyre.”

Bridges’ leadership debated

Despite the poor polling there are a number of commentators suggesting that Bridges’ leadership is actually safe. The Herald’s Claire Trevett recently argued that the lack of an obvious replacement is helping Bridges: “the lack of a clear successor guaranteed to lift that polling further, and a wariness of instability. The question of when National should move comes second to the question of whether National should move. Then there is the who. It needs to be somebody MPs can be sure will fare better than Bridges. That may seem like a low bar, but Bridges cannot stand accused of not throwing his all into the job” – see: One poll to bury Simon Bridges, another buys him more time (paywalled).

She wonders if there really is the will in the National caucus to make the necessary leadership change, and says MPs will be highly aware that a successful changeover needs to be clean and quick: “leadership changes should be dealt with like a sticking plaster and ripped off quickly to shorten the pain. They cannot afford to have a drawn out, multi-challenger contest such as they had last time.”

National insider Matthew Hooton appears to agree, suggesting that the MPs are unlikely to change their leader because they simply can’t agree on a replacement, and the most obvious successor, Judith Collins, is just too strongly opposed by some colleagues – see his column, Meet the National Party leadership contenders (paywalled). He says that “the prospect of a Collins leadership is opposed adamantly by inhouse detractors such as Maggie Barry, David Carter, Nikki Kaye, Anne Tolley and Michael Woodhouse.”

Hooton says that National MPs worry that, although Collins might well be a much more successful leader than Bridges, she might also be worse. He likens this to the fear that British Conservative MPs had about Boris Johnson, which “kept Theresa May in office for the past year”.

Similarly, he points to the type of conversation that he says Labour MPs were having in 2013: “Sure, David Shearer is a disaster, but do you have any idea how bad it could get with David Cunliffe?” And he concludes: “Right now, it seems National MPs prefer to sleepwalk to certain defeat in 2020 the way Phil Goff’s Labour did in 2011, instead of taking the risks Labour did in 2014 and 2017 with two very different candidates, Cunliffe and Ardern respectively.”

Other leadership options are discussed by Hooton (Todd Muller, Nikki Kaye, Mark Mitchell), with the suggestion that their ambitions are also blocking the rise of Collins to the leadership at the moment: “Until a ticket emerges with one willing to serve as deputy to another, Bridges is safe.”

In a more recent column, Hooton also examines the one big issue that might determine whether National has any chance of returning to government next year – how National orientates to New Zealand First – see: Simon Bridges’ big call on Winston Peters (paywalled).

Hooton suggests that National has two broad options. Do they try to kill them off and declare boldly that National would not do a coalition deal with Peters? Or do they announce New Zealand First to be their preferred party for coalition. The latter option, Hooton says, would make National look like a more viable option for getting into government, since Peters is likely to once again be the deciding factor, and it might also start fostering divisions in the current government.

Bridges’ hold on the leadership is also thought to have been enhanced by his recent caucus reshuffle, along with the departure of Amy Adams. According to veteran political journalist Richard Harman, the National leader “used his caucus spokesperson reshuffle to shore up his own position while he left his potential rivals unrewarded” – pointing to the poor outcomes for rivals Judith Collins and Todd Muller – see: Bridges shores up his position.

Harman explains: “Most notably, National’s highest rating ‘preferred Prime Minister’, Judith Collins has lost her Infrastructure portfolio though she retains housing… Further down the caucus, Climate Change spokesperson, Todd Muller, was not promoted. That was despite his high profiler work on developing a bipartisan consensus on climate change with the Minister, James Shaw. Muller has spoken on this at every one of the party’s regional conferences this year, and it appeared that the party more or less regarded him as a frontbencher. And he is perceived by many, particularly in the rural and provincial wing of the party as a potential future leader. Bridges has him at Ranking 31 though he has gained the forestry portfolio.”

He reports that some “party insiders saw it as ‘petty’ and part of a deliberate strategy to confine Muller to the back benches.” Harman also reports: “There was some talk within the caucus of running a Collins/Muller ticket against Bridges, but it would seem unlikely that Muller would have been comfortable with that.

The announced departure of Amy Adams the same week might have also been a welcome relief to Bridges, but while a leadership rival was removed it was also widely seen as a vote of “no confidence” in the chances of National returning to power anytime soon. Mike Hosking, for example, wrote that “the only conclusion you can draw is she sees defeat” – see: National’s exodus shows the party lacks belief.

It’s all part of a bigger problem, Hosking suggests: “This all adds to National’s ongoing problems. Their leader, their numbers, and now their retention of talent. They simply don’t look like they’re on a roll or anywhere close to it. They don’t look like the home of the winners.”

National’s harder line on climate change

Some commentators believe the issue of climate change has become the frontline issue for National – not just in terms of its election agenda, but also as a proxy for the internal leadership rivalries.

Claire Trevett has written about how Bridges’ current plan to get ahead of Labour is to emulate the successful Australian Liberal Party election campaign under leader Scott Morrison: “ScoMo’s campaign was an inspiration for Bridges and he has made it clear he expects to emulate it. Morrison’s campaign was more like an Opposition campaign. It focused on attacking his rival’s policies more than promoting his own. And it worked a treat. The past two weeks have been something of a test run for Bridges to try the same as he embarks on his bid to galvanise the ‘quiet New Zealanders.’ It helps that one of Morrison’s social media whizzes was one of Bridges’ staffers and she has now returned to Bridges” – see: Simon Bridges’ plan to topple Jacinda Ardern – ScoMo (paywalled).

She points out that National has converted the Liberal’s tagline against Bill Shorten of “The Bill Australia can’t afford” to “New Zealanders can’t afford this Government” in campaigns focusing on “fuel tax increases, cost of living increases such as rent, and the car tax.”

Trevett says “Bridges needs the election to be fought on hip pocket issues rather than personality or leadership.” He’s now targeting National’s messages to tradies, farmers, families, and those reliant on cars.

This might even work according to long-time Bridges critic, journalist Graham Adams, who notes that a harder line on environmental issues might actually yield votes for National – see: Simon Bridges searches for a miracle.

Adams points to one aspect of Morrison’s win in Australia, which might have been of interest to Bridges: “Scott Morrison’s win was aided by a significant swing against the Labor Party in Queensland sparked by the giant Adani coal-mine project, which the Coalition government supported but Labor had long been ambivalent about as it weighed its implications for jobs against its contribution to carbon emissions.”

Adams elaborates: “Bridges is bound to have noticed – and perhaps Scott Morrison reminded him – that when jobs are at stake, people will often vote for their immediate financial survival rather than the planet’s putative long-term prospects. On the campaign trail, Bridges will be able to point to many aspects of the government’s policies around sustainability and climate change that will harm employment.”

And in this regard, Adams points to the Government’s ban on new permits for offshore oil and gas exploration, as well as the more recent decision by “Greens minister Eugenie Sage to stop Oceana Gold buying 178 hectares near its mine in Waihi for a tailings reservoir that would have extended the life of its mine for as much as 12 years (and supported 350 lucrative jobs).”

There are definite signs that National is now taking a less liberal line on climate change issues. This view is well canvassed by Simon Wilson in his scathing opinion piece, Why National is our biggest climate change threat (paywalled).

Here’s his main point: “As long as National holds to this position, to me it demonstrates it is unfit to govern. National says it knows we have to combat climate change but undermines every effort to address the issue. Sneers at plans to promote rail. Refuses to endorse the Zero Carbon Bill. Claims it will reintroduce new rights to fossil fuel exploration. These past two weeks, it’s done its best to destroy the Government’s proposals for vehicle and agricultural emissions. Both those emissions sources should be beyond politics by now.”

It appears that there’s an internal strategic element to National MPs now taking harder lines on climate issues – because it’s become a proxy for who should lead the party into the 2020 election.

Newsroom’s Bernard Hickey explains: “It has become a proxy for an internal National caucus fight over the leadership, with both Paula Bennett and Judith Collins competing to take a harder line than Todd Muller, and forcing a weakened Bridges to back away from his previous support of measures to address climate change. Muller even contradicted Bridges in a weekend interview.” In order to appeal to traditional supporters, “National’s leadership contenders are now competing to see who can talk loudest about climate change measures being a ‘tax’ on poorer drivers and farmers.”

Finally, with National’s apparent loss of direction and ideological coherence, there are some big questions about where the party should go next, with some suggesting that emulating some of the strengths of Donald Trump and other successful conservatives and rightwingers might be what’s needed – see Martin van Beynen’s What a populist National Party would look like.

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