Bryce Edwards: Simon Bridges’ leadership still being undermined

Bryce Edwards: Simon Bridges’ leadership still being undermined

This week’s Colmar Brunton poll was one of the most bittersweet polls a political party and its leader have ever received. On the one hand, the party was up to 46 per cent but, on the other, leader Simon Bridges was only on 7 per cent as preferred PM. This meant that only 15 per cent of National supporters also appear to support Simon Bridges.

Has a poll ever had such a cruel ratio of support for a major party leader in New Zealand? No, according to Colmar Brunton: “The largest discrepancy we could find was in the November 2006 poll, Don Brash’s last as leader of the National Party. Brash registered 11% in Preferred PM whilst National polled at 51% party support.”

Brash therefore had the support of 22 per cent of National voters – and he was rolled the next month. So, could the same thing be about to happen to Bridges? For most of the year, especially during the Jami-Lee Ross scandal, his party has appeared united behind Bridges, but has that all changed?

Bridges being undermined again

There appear to be strong signs that moves are underway within the National Party caucus to undermine Bridges. It hasn’t been widely reported, but a National MP – or at least someone claiming to be one – has been leaking internal party information to the media this week.

The first leak was of an “internal poll” that National Party had commissioned from David Farrar’s polling company Curia. This was passed onto journalists at the same time that the Colmar Brunton poll came out, and it was much less favourable to National. Newstalk ZB’s Barry Soper reported it on Monday, saying: “Their overall rating had slipped to 41 per cent, teetering dangerously close to the red zone of the 30s, and behind Labour on 44” – see: Christmas break can’t come soon enough for Simon Bridges.

Soper gave further details of the demographic breakdown of this poll: “National had dropped in just about every polling group, except for women whose support was up slightly. Men bombed, with the over 60s, where the party usually fares well, crashing. Most age groups were heading towards the bloody carpet.”

The leaker reportedly clams the National caucus weren’t given the details for Bridges’ own public support: “they weren’t told how Bridges was faring in the preferred Prime Minister stakes and that had some of them seething. Polling on the leader has always been on the table for dissection.”

The leaker conveyed to Soper that “The Nats’ caucus was not a happy one”. And Soper concluded that Bridges’ leadership is therefore in trouble: “as they sharpen their knives for the Christmas turkey at least they’ll know their blades will be ready for use when they see their next internal poll at their first meeting next year.”

Soper then followed up this column with an extraordinary report saying that there appears to be a new leaker from within National: “An MP, either acting alone or with the knowledge of others, is undermining Bridges by using a burner phone, not taking any chances with the internal phone records of MPs inspected during the Jami-Lee Ross probe. The number can’t be traced and since the texting started the number’s changed. But the internal poll figures have checked out and so too have other claims made – which could only have come from a caucus member” – see: Burning Simon Bridges – Doomed to repeat National Party history.

According to Soper, the leaker gave further information, which is worth quoting at length: “The MP feeding the information’s going to a lot of trouble, texting with a third burner number, giving an insight into what went on in this week’s caucus. How Maggie Barry, who’s being besieged with bullying accusations, stood up and thanked her colleagues for their support, greeted by a stunned silence. Her colleagues remember her outburst in October, castigating Jami-Lee Ross for his behaviour towards his staff. The texter said they were bracing for more accusations against Barry, and they came. It’s unlikely this texter’s acting alone. It’s clearly a campaign to undermine National’s leadership team and the strain is beginning to show.

Three other media outlets have reported receiving the leaks from the anonymous texter. RNZ’s Chris Bramwell explains their own dealings with the story: “After RNZ ran the story with Mr Bridges’ comments, it received another text from the same anonymous person saying Mr Bridges was foolish for thinking the polling leak did not come from a National MP. The texter offered details of what happened in yesterday’s caucus meeting as proof they were an MP. RNZ has been unable to verify the texter’s identity” – see: Leaker claiming to be National MP sends another text.

The NBR’s Brent Edwards has commented on the leaks today: “Certainly what’s been going on have been attempts to discredit him as leader. There’s no doubt about it. So, someone, or some people, are clearly trying to undermine his leadership. Which in a way seems extraordinary…. The National Party is sitting very comfortably in the 40s… It’s astonishing to think that people would be thinking of pushing out the leader” – see: The people working to destabilise the National Party (paywalled).

Continued speculation about Bridges’ departure

In the above NBR item, Edwards concludes that Bridges “has got to be worried about it. It’s debilitating to his leadership.” Meanwhile Peter Dunne suggests that, although a change of leadership might be best to occur later next yet, “the difficulty that Simon Bridges has got is that it’s increasingly speculative as to whether he can last that long.”

Dunne also explains what he thinks is going on in the party at the moment: “There’s a group of people associate with the National Party – not necessarily in Parliament – who don’t like its current face. They don’t like that John Key didn’t spend enough political capital by being more rightwing. They feel that the current National Party is a little bit too ‘Labour-lite’.”

He says that there’s not necessarily a plan for a particular candidate to take over: “I don’t necessarily think that they have a candidate in mind. But these people are working to destabilise the National Party – a bit like what you’re seeing happen in Australia actually, with the Liberals – to the point where it starts to look like it’s imploding. And someone can then come through and say ‘It’s time to grab the ideological mettle – we’ve got to reshape this party as a genuine rightwing party, because that is what people want’.”

The timing for replacing Bridges was also canvassed by Duncan Garner in an interview yesterday with political commentators Chris Trotter and Trish Sherson – see: Should National pull a Jacinda Ardern and leave it to the last minute to roll Simon Bridges?

In this, Trotter suggests that Bridges is safe for the moment: “If you’re going to change your leader, the historical precedent now has been set with Jacinda – that is you spring it on people.” Furthermore, he says “If your party vote is on 46 percent, you’d have to be a turkey voting for an early Christmas if you moved at that point.”

Another leftwing political commentator, Gordon Campbell, also seems to believe that Bridges is safe for the time being. Writing about an earlier poll result, Campbell said that, like Theresa May in Britain, Bridges is “safe in his job only to the extent that no-one else on the National front bench seems ragingly keen on taking over the task of leading National to a likely defeat in 2020” – see: On what the polls say about National’s leadership.

Campbell looks at some of the pros and cons of a leadership change: “Ironically, Jami-Lee Ross has probably bought Bridges a bit of time. Such are the levels of anger at the Botany MP, his former colleagues will be wanting to deny Ross the satisfaction of seeing Bridges bite the dust anytime soon. Inevitably though, there will be a stock-taking when Parliament re-convenes in February, and if a leadership change is to happen it will occur around May-June next year. Even then, a leadership change will happen only if an erosion in poll support is putting many of the National caucus at risk in 2020, such that new leadership might staunch the likely scale of the losses.”

But Bridges is also getting flack this week from his own side of the political divide. Mike Hosking has criticised him for seeking public input into National’s policy development: “although it sounds all touchy-feely and inclusive, is it makes you look like you can’t think of anything. It makes you look like you’re not really sure of what you stand for. And if something that basic isn’t obvious, no one is supporting a bloke who is a bit ‘go where the wind takes him’. Great leaders don’t have to tell you what they believe because you already know. Bridges already suffers from a touch of the old wishy washy” – see: Wishy washy Simon Bridges needs to figure out what he stands for.

Long-time political journalist John Armstrong was recently even more critical, suggesting that Bridges is unlikely to make it to 2020 as leader: “every factor relevant to the likelihood of Bridges’ making it that far now screams to the negative” and “The stark reality is that he has never been in such a position of weakness as is the case now” – see: The sad truth for Simon Bridges is that the vast proportion of the public simply don’t like him.

It’s the poor personal polling that will do in Bridges, according to Armstrong: “Having slumped to just seven per cent, Bridges has sunk into the same dark, deep hole that swallowed up the likes of Andrew Little, David Cunliffe, David Shearer and Phil Goff when Labour was in Opposition. The more you try to dig yourself out, the deeper you dig yourself in. Everything you do is deemed to be wrong. The voting public stops listening to you because they think you are now unelectable. Once so tagged, you are unelectable.”

Finally, for a completely different take on Bridges’ chances and his leadership abilities, it’s well worth reading Ele Ludemann’s defence of the National leader and critique of the pundits who are “interviewing their own keyboards to write opinion pieces forecasting the end of the leader’s tenure” – see: Drip, drip, drip. The farmer, writer and long-time National Party activist concludes: “yesterday convinced me that like good farmers after bad lambings, Bridges has got up and is getting on, in spite of the drip,drip, drip that’s trying to take him down.”