Bridges: Is there life af­ter Jami-Lee?

The Na­tional Party leader says he is en­joy­ing prov­ing wrong those who have al­ready writ­ten his obituary, writes Claire Trevett

Weekend Herald - - Review - Photo / Getty

Na­tional Party leader Si­mon Bridges is sit­ting in his of­fice with his deputy Paula Ben­nett and MP Mark Mitchell, who is re­gal­ing them with his “dad jokes”.

They in­clude pearlers such as “two gold­fish are in a tank. One says to the other ‘how do you drive this thing?”’

Bridges may well have won­dered the same thing about be­ing Leader of the Op­po­si­tion.

He is clutch­ing a Young Nats’ branded cof­fee cup. He’s or­dered 20 and has a plan to sell some on in his Tau­ranga elec­torate for $4 more than he paid for them. “Make a tidy wee profit. Let’s hope that doesn’t re­sult in a po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

Caveat emp­tor: the cups have a ten­dency to leak.

“The prob­lem is the lids don’t go on very well so I think there’s about a 48 per cent chance of get­ting cof­fee on my­self.”

He laughs with some gusto when it is sug­gested the same prob­lem ap­plies to his cau­cus — the lid hadn’t been on very well. It was the leak of his travel ex­penses that was one of the trig­gers for his cur­rent plight — a leak he has blamed on Jami-Lee Ross, although Ross de­nies it.

Ross has ad­mit­ted ques­tion­ing Bridges’ lead­er­ship and polling, ac­tions deemed acts of dis­loy­alty by Bridges and Na­tional MPs and one of the prompts for Ross to be put on leave.

Bridges ad­mits there is still some pub­lic fas­ci­na­tion with the mat­ter, but he be­lieves ul­ti­mately the pub­lic want Na­tional to move on and fo­cus on other is­sues, such as the fuel taxes, Karel Sroubek and “things that have an im­pact on the coun­try”.

What Bridges means is he wants to move on him­self. The re­lease of a new tape on Mon­day did not make it any eas­ier, but it will be of some con­so­la­tion that it dom­i­nated the news for one day. The re­turn of Ross, when that day comes, will be an­other trial.

Bridges’ new catch­phrases on ques­tions re­lat­ing to Ross are “I am done talk­ing about this” and “Na­tional is mov­ing on”.

The mas­sive 56-strong Na­tional cau­cus was a force Bridges’ pre­de­ces­sor Bill English said would be “the strong­est Op­po­si­tion party that Par­lia­ment has seen”.

They have now shrunk to 55, but English wasn’t com­pletely wrong.

The case of Czech Sroubek se­cur­ing res­i­dency could not have come along at a bet­ter time for Na­tional. They have been ham­mer­ing at the case.

Mitchell has proved good for some­thing other than dad jokes, get­ting in­for­ma­tion on Sroubek that Na­tional has used to em­bar­rass Im­mi­gra­tion Min­is­ter Iain Lees-Gal­loway in the House day af­ter day. So, too, with its at­tacks on fuel taxes.

Ques­tion Time has be­come ap­point­ment view­ing again. While in­ter­est in the lat­est tape re­leased by Ross lasted one day, Sroubek keeps go­ing.

It must be in­fu­ri­at­ing that as Na­tional starts fir­ing in Op­po­si­tion, it has also shot it­self in the foot, cour­tesy of Ross.

But it is the lot of Op­po­si­tion lead­ers to have their obit­u­ar­ies writ­ten early, and of­ten.

On that Bridges says, “I am en­joy­ing prov­ing them wrong.”

“I look at this year and I be­lieve Na­tional un­der me has set the agenda, whether it’s been busi­ness con­fi­dence, the econ­omy, cost of liv­ing, law and or­der, even in the last cou­ple of weeks in forc­ing the Prime Min­is­ter’s hand on fuel taxes, on Sroubek.

“I feel very con­fi­dent we will end the year dom­i­nat­ing the news with things that mat­ter to New Zealan­ders and where the Govern­ment has short­com­ings.”

He is also con­fi­dent he will still be leader.

Dur­ing the last lead­er­ship run-off, Ju­dith Collins set her­self the mark of 35 per cent party sup­port in the polls as the point at which a leader should go.

When he is asked whether he would jump or try to ride it out if the party dropped to that level on his watch, Bridges sim­ply in­sists that will not hap­pen.

“It would only be nat­u­ral that in the light of some­thing like the JamiLee Ross episode, there is a tem­po­rary ques­tion­ing, but I’ve got no doubt as we’ve got back on to is­sues such as the fuel tax and Sroubek we are in good shape.”

The last One News Col­mar Brun­ton poll was taken over the week the Ross drama was break­ing — and Na­tional dropped just 2 to 43 per cent.

Bridges’ per­sonal rat­ing had dropped to just 7 per cent. He had al­ready been strug­gling in the poll for pre­ferred Prime Min­is­ter — one of the rea­sons Ross was “un­der­min­ing” him to be­gin with.

Bridges will not re­veal what Na­tional’s in­ter­nal polls show now, but says the party is still in the 40s de­spite re­ports that Labour’s in­ter­nal polls had it in the high 30s.

“The real story is how so many New Zealan­ders get that this is a tran­si­tory thing in­volv­ing one MP, has been han­dled right, and Na­tional is still the party that fo­cuses on the things they want to where the Govern­ment isn’t,” says Bridges.

“Be­fore this, we were mak­ing the run­ning and do­ing well but this has tested me, it has given me a sense that ac­tu­ally, in the real dif­fi­cult stuff, I’ll do what’s right and ul­ti­mately I reckon that’s what New Zealan­ders want from a leader.”

He was “heart­ened” by the way his cau­cus swung in be­hind him and said though pub­lic per­cep­tions of a leader were im­por­tant, so was pol­icy and a party’s plan.

They would start to see more of that from next year.

“The end” for Bridges will likely de­pend how long cau­cus can keep its lid on.

Bridges has had to apol­o­gise to one of them — Mau­reen Pugh — for his colour­ful anal­y­sis of her per­for­mance as “f***ing use­less” in a con­ver­sa­tion that Ross taped.

Asked whether he has the florist on speed-dial to send apolo­getic bunches of flow­ers, he points to his Young Nats cup again.

“Mau­reen de­serves flow­ers. What she got was a ful­some apol­ogy from me. Maybe she’ll get a Young Nats cof­fee cup, ha­ha­ha­ha­haha, and she won’t have to pay $12. I’m feel­ing gen­er­ous. I owe Mau­reen. So $5 will be fine.”

Lucky Pugh.

One of Bridges’ sav­ing graces may be that he can still man­age to laugh at his plight, though he ad­mits some­times that abil­ity was put to the test.

“I’ve got no doubt now I am a strong leader. As twee as that may sound, I’ve been tested and I’ve come through. The cau­cus knows that, they’ve seen ev­ery­thing.”

Steven Joyce was Na­tional’s “Mr Fixit” in Govern­ment, charged with mop­ping up messes where re­quired or tak­ing the hit him­self when they could not be ti­died.

On the day Bridges spoke to the Week­end Her­ald, Joyce was tweet­ing about his ef­forts to put to­gether a bar­be­cue.

The sum­mer bar­be­cue has been code for plot­ting a lead­er­ship change since the mid-1990s, when for­mer Labour MP Phil Goff hosted a bar­be­cue at which there was re­port­edly plot­ting against then un­pop­u­lar He­len Clark.

Clark stared Goff and her low per­sonal polling down and went on to be­come Prime Min­is­ter.

When Joyce’s ef­forts are men­tioned, Bridges quickly says there is “no need” for bar­be­cues in Na­tional. Clark may well now be his bea­con of hope.

The next day Bridges texts to ad­vise he has sent Pugh one of those leaky cof­fee cups — free of charge.

Si­mon Bridges faces ques­tions about Karel Sroubek (right, top), his apol­ogy to Mau­reen Pugh (mid­dle), and Jami-Lee Ross (bot­tom).

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