Bryce Edwards: The Risks to Simon Bridges’ leadership

Bryce Edwards: The Risks to Simon Bridges’ leadership

Last week was Simon Bridges’ worst one as National Party leader, which has sparked widespread discussion about his risk of being rolled. Commentators are relatively divided on the likelihood of this happening, and they also have differing views on how he’s performing, and how united his party currently is.

Bridges’ harshest critic is the Herald on Sunday columnist Heather du Plessis-Allan who says that “Bridges’ days seem numbered” and “Bridges is close to blowing it. His time is almost up” – see: Simon Bridges in the last chance saloon.

She starts with a list of Bridges’ weaknesses: “Bridges never quite felt right for the leadership. It’s that lack of authenticity, the baggage of the last government, the public obsession with his diction.” And then in the column du Plessis-Allan just adds more to the list: “Bad personal polling. Ordering the [leak] inquiry. Calling Housing New Zealand tenants meth crooks. Failing to impress business.”

Also unimpressed with Bridges’ performance so far, is Stuff political journalist, Andrea Vance, who says that he’s unlikely to ever become prime minister because “he lacks two skills vital to holding the premiership: strong leadership and smooth communication” – see: Bridges lacks skills vital to be PM.

Vance says “his media appearances lack weight and authority and he often gets tangled up in word salads.” And like others, Vance blames Bridges’ decision to order the leak inquiry for his current predicament.

However, she also credits Bridges with a number of impressive strengths. And she says there “is no suggestion he is finished just yet. His caucus remain loyal and there is no hint of a leadership challenge.”

In contrast, a picture of great disunity is painted by Duncan Garner: “The National Party is tearing itself apart, limb by limb, fingernail by fingernail, and the hard part is pretending everything behind the blue picket fence is in support of Simon and it’s all dandy. Cause it ain’t” – see: An embarrassing own goal when National’s defence wasn’t even under pressure.

Garner says that such instability is deadly for parties, and Bridges’ decision to order an inquiry into the leak has merely put more focus on this, when National should be opposing the Government: “Focus on what matters to voters. Voters find internal spats a turnoff”. Furthermore, Garner claims to have insider information suggesting that the leak inquiry report will be inconclusive: “the world’s most pointless inquiry ever will reveal … nothing of note.”

There are in fact four different possibilities that the inquiry could produce, according to TVNZ political editor Jessica Mutch McKay, and “None of these are good options for Simon Bridges” – see: Plugging the leak an ongoing headache for Simon Bridges, says Jessica Mutch McKay.

Here are Mutch McKay’s four possible outcomes: “1. The inquiry finds the leaker is an MP. That MP is named and shamed and pushed out by the party. Depending on who it is this could cause a by-election. 2. The inquiry finds the leaker is an MP and National keeps it under wraps. 3. The inquiry identifies a staff member as the leaker and that person is dealt with by the party. 4. Or the inquiry can’t find enough evidence to identify the leaker and they stay working in the corridors of power.”

There will be significant public interest in the leak report, and Bridges is suggesting that it will be made public, saying: “We want to be as open and transparent as we possibly can so we anticipate making the report public.” But it’s not clear when it will come out, with Mutch McKay reporting on this: “It was due back next Friday, while the MPs are away from Parliament in their electorates. Now there could be a delay for another week.”

“If the culprit is outed next week when the inquiry reports back, it could easily blow up in his face”, writes Stuff political editor Tracy Watkins in her column, Is Simon Bridges a dead man walking? And she says that there are other reasons to forecast Bridges’ demise: “His personal poll ratings are low, and his favourability ratings (anecdotally at least) are said to be heading south. He is struggling to connect with voters”.

What’s more, “There is a very long line of ambitious politicians at his back whose seats in Parliament are reliant on his performance. They will turn on him in an instant if he puts their livelihoods under threat.” However, that would risk ramping up party instability, which actually means that Bridges is more secure: “He has only one ace card: disunity is toxic.”

Watkins also suggests that although Bridges is in a “particularly precarious position” – especially because National’s “staggering” high popular support is “despite” not because of him – he is made more secure because National’s “message is getting cut-through” with voters at the moment. In addition, she says that there’s a number of “election-year timebombs ticking away” that could jeopardise Labour’s re-election chances.

In fact, Bridges hasn’t made many mistakes since he became leader, according to New Zealand Herald political editor Audrey Young – see her column, National leader Simon Bridges doing better than Jami-Lee Ross saga suggests. She explains that last week shows that “he is an easy magnet for criticism and there is a low tolerance for errors from him”. Also, “People like to dislike him which is a slight disadvantage in politics.”

In terms of Bridges’ widely-criticised “embarrassing” media conference last week about Jami-Lee Ross, Young says the criticism was disproportionate: “The pile-on to Bridges seemed excessive – considering he acknowledged the error and offered a plausible explanation – that he was meaning ‘embarrassment’ at having your personal health issues aired so publicly, and not that mental health issues were embarrassing.”

Young says that Bridges simply has his work cut out trying to lead a party that just lost power after nine years in government: “being Opposition leader in the first year of a new government is surely the worst job in politics as Simon Bridges is finding. You are trying to instil a positive outlook in a team of disappointed and frustrated egos”. And in this, he’s not doing too badly, even finding positions to support the Government in – for example signing up to Labour’s agenda on child poverty reduction targets and climate change policy.

Nonetheless the leak inquiry has been Bridges’ big mistake, she says: “It is not likely Bridges will ever admit to regretting the inquiry but it has been a two-month distraction for what may well turn out to be an inconclusive outcome by the inquiry. That amounts to the worst decision in an otherwise reasonable showing in National’s first year of Opposition.”

Of course, there can’t be a risk to a leader unless there is a legitimate challenger who actually wants Simon Bridges’ job. That’s the focus of Danyl Mclauchlan’s column, The next few weeks may decide the fate of Simon Bridges. In this, he argues that there’s no pressing desire for a leadership change in National, but you never know when the caucus might suddenly notice someone in their ranks who could do better than Bridges.

Despite the current lack of an alternative leader, Mclauchlan does think Bridges is in trouble: “It’s probably not working. He’s blundered into that deadly terrain where so many opposition leaders end their careers: a few bad decisions raise doubts about his judgement; now he has to take risks to demonstrate his leadership qualities – and to stay relevant in the media – but every mistake he makes is amplified, often out of all proportion, until some final, trivial gaffe combined with a bad poll result wipes him out.”

Similarly, Alex Braae says there’s a lack of contenders, and there’s no apparent plotting or undermining going on (apart from the original leak of Bridges’ expenditure report) – see: Simon Bridges isn’t going anywhere. According to Braae, any disgruntled National MPs would be irrational to create instability at the moment: “why would National, a party famed for internal discipline over the last decade, shoot itself in the foot with a coup? Why risk being 44% in the polls for the outside chance of getting to 45%?”

For the best discussion of possible replacements for Bridges it’s worth reading John Armstrong’s colourful column from six weeks ago: National Party lacks leadership options if Simon Bridges is rolled. He suggested then that Bridges is in trouble, but that it’s difficult to see an obvious replacement. The possible options are canvassed: Amy Adams (“You cannot be serious”), Judith Collins (“Never say never in politics. But Collins is very much the rainy day option to be saved for a very rainy day”), Paula Bennett (“At a pinch, she could serve as a temporary leader in an emergency”), and Mark Mitchell (“His public profile is still relatively low. But he may now head the pack of credible replacements for Bridges”).

Armstrong also dissents from the consensus that Bridges has erred by ordering the leak inquiry: “Had he sat back and been passive, however, he would surely have been condemned as being weak.” Furthermore, he says the leaker “has given Bridges a heaven-sent opportunity to command respect by looking tough and decisive. Not surprisingly, he has grabbed that opportunity with both hands.”

Finally, does the public still deserve an explanation for the departure of National MP, Jami-Lee Ross? Former Act Party leader, Rodney Hide, thinks so, arguing that National is treating the public like fools – see: Jami-Lee Ross and the National Party owe the electorate an explanation.