Nats’ dilemma: is Bridges the best bet?

The Dominion Post - - Opinion - Tracy Watkins [email protected] The health minister may have re­leased the de­layed men­tal health in­quiry re­port this week, but he is not re­leas­ing any ‘‘re­ac­tion’’ to it until next year, just be­fore the Bud­get. While de­tailed plans might take time

Two years ago this week John Key sent shock­waves through the coun­try by an­nounc­ing his re­tire­ment. Key of­fered up as an ex­pla­na­tion the need for change and re­newal – but mostly he was sur­pris­ingly hon­est that he just didn’t have an­other elec­tion in him.

Key had also judged that at some point soon the coun­try would be ready to move on from Na­tional. He loved win­ning too much to let that be the last word on his prime min­is­ter­ship.

The big un­knowns are whether that time would have come at the last elec­tion or the next one, and the ex­tent to which the cult of Key would have neu­tralised Jacin­da­ma­nia.

Loy­alty to Key’s eco­nomic legacy may have coun­tered some of the mood for change for which Ardern’s lead­er­ship was a light­ning rod.

But these aren’t ques­tions Na­tional will be both­er­ing it­self with these days.

Af­ter an ex­tra­or­di­nary, and tur­bu­lent, few months there are more bru­tal cal­cu­la­tions to be made – such as whether Si­mon Bridges can carry them back into power. And if the an­swer is no – which seems to be the grow­ing con­sen­sus – can any­one else do bet­ter.

This is what Bridges’ MPs will be weigh­ing up be­tween now and Fe­bru­ary.

Does it mat­ter if Bridges isn’t pop­u­lar?

Yes of course. Pol­i­tics is a pop­u­lar­ity con­test, af­ter all.

It’s not just about be­ing liked. Trust is what sells a party’s poli­cies.

When An­drew Lit­tle talked about Labour’s wel­fare pol­icy, vot­ers heard ‘‘hand-out’’. When Ardern talked about the same thing, vot­ers heard em­pa­thy and the lan­guage of a car­ing so­ci­ety.

While polls are thin on the ground these days, Bridges seems to be rat­ing even worse than Lit­tle, Phil Goff or David Shearer did – pre­sum­ably all use­ful bench­marks for judg­ing the right time to mount a lead­er­ship coup.

Bridges is smart, ar­tic­u­late and per­son­able. But he looks and sounds like a politi­cian, in an age where vot­ers look for au­then­tic­ity.

He ar­gues that Jim Bol­ger and He­len Clark weren’t pop­u­lar in Op­po­si­tion ei­ther but went on to win and hold power for three terms apiece.

But the his­tory books are lit­tered with many more bod­ies of those who were just as un­pop­u­lar as Bridges and never made it.

And be­sides, the world has changed vastly.

It has been nearly 20 years since Clark was elected prime minister. She pre­dated iPhones, Face­book, Twit­ter, In­sta­gram, YouTube, the ad­vents of 24/7 news and the 24/7 politi­cian.

So much vis­i­bil­ity means good qual­i­ties are am­pli­fied – but bad qual­i­ties are ex­ag­ger­ated.

The job of Op­po­si­tion is of course to op­pose. But do­ing so while giv­ing hope that you of­fer some­thing bet­ter? That’s the hard bit. Key nailed it. Ardern nailed it. Bridges is run­ning out of time to nail it.

Can Bridges turn things around?

Ev­ery­one knows be­ing Op­po­si­tion leader is the worst job in pol­i­tics. And lead­ing the Op­po­si­tion off the back of nine years in power is a sui­cide mis­sion.

But Bridges’ first months in the job were marked by a re­mark­able con­fi­dence that this time was dif­fer­ent. Na­tional were act­ing like the All Black team that scored the most tries but lost to a ri­val who won on penal­ties thanks to bad ref­er­ee­ing.

But lately re­al­ity seems to be set­tling in and Bridges is act­ing like a cor­nered man. The draw­bridges are up and he is blam­ing some of the me­dia for his neg­a­tive im­age. The ‘‘soft’’ me­dia seems to have gone, in place of an an­grier and harder edge.

Some of this may also be strate­gic. Cre­at­ing a mood for change in just three years is a big ask.

But Na­tional will see a win­dow to rock con­fi­dence in Ardern and her Gov­ern­ment in that pe­riod by be­ing hugely dis­rup­tive, and play­ing to the pol­i­tics of anger and con­flict rather than as­pi­ra­tion.

Why roll Bridges when Na­tional is still polling around the same as Labour?

It’s true that Na­tional hasn’t plumbed any­where near the depths that Labour sank to in Op­po­si­tion.

But that’s in large part thanks to the legacy Key be­queathed them. That has been a bless­ing and a curse. It has kept Na­tional in a hold­ing pat­tern, fear­ful of squan­der­ing any good­will from the Key/Bill English years. And that has de­layed the painful process of change and rein­ven­tion that Op­po­si­tion of­fers.

The anony­mous white-anting of Bridges by some­one who claims to be an MP is a sign that there are those within the cau­cus who are im­pa­tient for the de­bate over Na­tional’s heart and soul to be­gin.

Mean­while, there are other wor­ries. Key may have gifted Na­tional many things, but a coali­tion ally was not one of them.

Can Bridges do a deal with NZ First or, for that mat­ter, the Greens? On cur­rent ev­i­dence, nei­ther.

His strat­egy ap­pears to be the same as the strat­egy Na­tional em­ployed at the last elec­tion. Kill them both.

Would rolling Bridges play badly with vot­ers?

Vot­ers pun­ish dis­unity, and dis­loy­alty is toxic. But the right leader can change ev­ery­thing. Ardern re­placed Lit­tle just weeks out from the elec­tion and Labour’s sup­port soared.

Don Brash rolled English in an ex­traor­di­nar­ily messy coup and nearly won an elec­tion.

Key re­placed Brash af­ter yet more cau­cus splits and di­vi­sions and led Na­tional into its golden years. Phil Goff re­placed Clark in an en­tirely am­i­ca­ble lead­er­ship con­test and dive-bombed.

In other words, there is no right an­swer to that ques­tion.

If they roll him, when?

It’s prob­a­bly too late in the year to move against Bridges now (though never say never). So if Na­tional is se­ri­ous about change, it will prob­a­bly move early next year, once its MPs have taken sound­ings from their lo­cal elec­torate members and the bar­be­cue-and­beers set.

If not Bridges, who?

Ju­dith Collins is nudg­ing Bridges in the pre­ferred prime minister stakes. That’s usu­ally the death knell.

Collins is po­lar­is­ing and you could count the num­ber of votes she got in the last lead­er­ship con­test on one hand.

But those poll num­bers will be com­pelling to the cau­cus. And Collins has done a lot to re­ha­bil­i­tate her­self with her col­leagues. There is said to be grow­ing mo­men­tum be­hind her.

Deputy Paula Ben­nett did not put her hand up in the last lead­er­ship con­test but may be an­other con­tender; her favoura­bil­ity rat­ings are said to be sig­nif­i­cantly higher than Bridges’, which may ex­plain her re­cent vis­i­bil­ity.

For­mer lead­er­ship con­tender Amy Adams has done her­self no favours in the fi­nance port­fo­lio and is now dis­counted.

But for­mer po­lice dog handler Mark Mitchell has risen in stature and is among the co­terie of front­bench MPs who have kept their Gov­ern­ment coun­ter­parts un­der the cosh.

Long shots in­clude cli­mate change spokesman Todd Muller, a for­mer cor­po­rate high flier who is re­spected on both sides of the House. But there are par­al­lels with for­mer Labour leader David Shearer, so he might be wise to sit this one out.

Like­wise ris­ing star Nicola Wil­lis, who is in­creas­ingly be­ing talked up as lead­er­ship po­ten­tial.

Will Na­tional do it?

When Bridges be­came leader it was as­sumed the chances of his mak­ing it to the elec­tion were slim. It’s the way the cy­cle works. But those chances are get­ting slim­mer.

What could save him? It’s a cliche, but the next elec­tion will be Labour’s to lose, not Na­tional’s to win. If Labour is rocked by scan­dal, gets too far ahead of the elec­torate on wel­fare or in­dus­trial re­la­tions re­forms, and con­tin­ues to look in­com­pe­tent over de­ci­sions like the Karel Sroubek af­fair, vot­ers will turn away.

But it may be the next Na­tional leader who prof­its, not Bridges.

Mal­lard was ut­terly en­ti­tled to kick out Bridges when he di­rectly crit­i­cised the Speaker’s im­par­tial­ity on Wed­nes­day. But let­ting al­most half the cham­ber walk out still shows some­thing of a lack of con­trol over the House.

Will Jacinda Ardern be fac­ing Si­mon Bridges in the 2020 elec­tion. Or some­one else?

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