Bryce Edwards: Will National burn its Bridges?

Bryce Edwards: Will National burn its Bridges?


There’s no doubt about it. The latest political poll is terrible news for the National Party and Simon Bridges. The only question is whether it signals the end of Bridges’ leadership of the party.

The Newshub Reid Research poll was described last night by Newshub political editor Tova O’Brien as being a “massive hit” for National and “a dark day for Simon Bridges”. The poll showed Labour to be up 4.9 percentage points to a record 47.5 per cent, and National down 3.5 points, putting them on only 41.6 per cent, which was apparently a record low for the Newshub/Reid poll. You can see all the detail in Tova O’Brien’s story, National plunges to worst result in over a decade – Newshub poll.

According to O’Brien, the poll results are “a game-changer, and for Simon Bridges it could be ‘game over’.”

This was reinforced by a second factor – the fact that Bridges was now in third place as “preferred prime minister”, down 3.9 points to just 5 per cent. In contrast, Jacinda Ardern was now on 41.8 per cent. The real problem for Bridges, is that Judith Collins was slightly ahead of him in this poll – leapfrogging him by going up 2.5 points to 6.2 per cent. You can see these details in O’Brien’s item, NZ prefers Judith Collins to Simon Bridges as Prime Minister – Newshub poll.

A third factor making this bad news for Bridges was that the poll also showed voters deemed his performance to be very poor. O’Brien reports: “Just 21.9 percent of people think Simon Bridges is performing well – more than twice as many think he’s performing poorly (50.8 percent). The rest don’t know. By way of context 68.3 percent of voters think Jacinda Ardern’s performing well, while just 16.8 percent think she’s performing poorly” – see: Simon Bridges’ trifecta from hell.

To illustrate how bad this is for Bridges, O’Brien compares this to previous Labour leaders: “To find a Leader of the Opposition doing this badly, you have to track back through our poll archives to 2010. Only Phil Goff did as badly as Bridges, with his abysmal Preferred PM rating of 5.1 percent. That means even the disastrous duo of Davids – David Shearer and David Cunliffe – were given a greater vote of confidence than Bridges. That’s really saying something.”

The Newshub political editor therefore predicts that Bridges’ time as National leader is nearly up, saying “His ousting is starting to look like a case of when, not if.” She says that the only factor keeping him in the position is his colleagues’ fear of making things worse by starting a process of leadership changes: “The Nats are very conscious that leadership changes can be extremely damaging for a party, and things can spiral out of control very quickly (see the Labour Party circa 2008-2017).”

The Case for Bridges being in trouble

Talking on The AM Show this morning, Newshub’s Duncan Garner also said that this fear of “a Labour-style leader-go-round” would be a stabilising factor for Bridges, but the polls are heading closer to a “trigger point” whereby he will be gone: “Three more polls with Collins ahead of Bridges, and if National’s support dips into the 30s, Simon will be gone” – see: Polls can change a leader.

Garner says that although the Newshub poll wasn’t putting National into “crisis”, “last night’s poll was an earthquake moment, and that’s because the earth has moved.” He says: “It’s a damn awful position for Bridges. It’s just dreadful for him. Polls actually mean diddly-squat this far out from the election, except polls can change the leader. Hands of National MPs are hovering over the red button – but they’re yet to push eject. Until now there has been no mood to ditch Bridges.”

Newstalk ZB’s political editor Barry Soper has said that with the latest poll, Bridges is now unsustainable as leader, and “the writing is essentially on the wall” – see: New poll reveals dire results for National and Simon Bridges.

Soper doesn’t see the National caucus waiting for another poll before moving against Bridges: “They had an opinion poll, that was their internal polling, at their caucus last week. That apparently was still in the 40s, but Simon Bridges’ own polling was not shown to his caucus”. According to this article, “Soper says that is rare, as the leader’s polls is usually shown to the caucus. He says this also happened at the final caucus meeting last year.”

Stuff political editor, Tracy Watkins, is also pessimistic about Bridges’ fortunes, saying although National’s internal polling is supposedly higher, public “polls have a way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. And that is what Bridges will fear most” – see: Poll hit for National Party and leader Simon Bridges.

Watkins says that although National being on 41 per cent “might not look like much of a crisis”, having Bridges’ own polling sinking so badly will threaten to take the party down with him. What’s more, with Judith Collins surpassing him, “there is now someone voters see as a more credible leader than him.” And she reports that “momentum has been quietly building behind Collins within the caucus.”

Watkins also points to a morale problem amongst National MPs, given that they might have expected many of their campaigns against the Government to be producing better public support: “That is what will hit National hardest. There is nothing more demoralising to Opposition MPs than seeing their bullets hit without making an impact.”

The Case against National panicking

Not everyone agrees with such negative readings of the latest poll. Herald political editor Audrey Young has pooh-poohed all the talk of a crisis in National: “The latest Newshub Reid Research poll was more dramatic in its presentation than in its results. It may cause a murmur in National but is not the sort of result that will throw the party into crisis or into a coup mentality” – see: Polls will have to be a lot worse for a lot longer before knives are sharpened against Simon Bridges.

Here’s her main reasoning: “There is too much variation in the results to be sure of a trend, although it makes sense that a party led by a popular leader doing a great job for New Zealand in Europe at the time the poll was taken would receive a decent lift. But polling 41.6 per cent for National is not crisis territory. Judith Collins being ahead of Bridges as preferred Prime Minister by 1.2 points is not surprising seeing as it has been predicted for the past year. But this is not the sort of result that triggers talk of resignations or coups. National’s party vote polling would have to get a lot worse for a lot longer before the knives are sharpened for Bridges.”

Two political commentators from the left and the right agreed that Bridges is safe for the moment, and that National would be extremely unwise to get rid of him at this stage – see Newshub’s National would be ‘morons’ to change leaders at the moment – commentators.

Appearing on The AM Show, rightwing pundit Trish Sherson declared: “I think if you were in the National Party, you’d be an absolute moron to be panicking around this”. In agreement, leftwing commentator Chris Trotter said, “If they don’t learn from the Labour party experience, they are fools, because a revolving door approach to leadership is just going to drive you down.” He also questioned whether Collins has the ability to capture the necessary centre ground of politics.

Similarly, Tim Watkin cautions against reading too much into Collins’ six per cent support in the latest poll: “What is Collins’ ceiling? It’s all very well to get six, 12, even 18 percent of New Zealanders excited. But can you imagine her on 41.8 percent, as Ardern is today? Or the 40+ percent Key so consistently achieved? Can she generate the popularity of a John Key or win over a coalition partner? There’s the rub” – see: Newshub poll: If this is the winter of Bridge’s discontent, he can’t be too discontented. And on the six per cent polling, he adds, “It’s hardly a momentous number in itself and not a number from which you’d launch a coup.”

Watkin also puts forward some strong arguments for why we shouldn’t be surprised that National has gone down in the polls at this stage, making the case that politics is “seasonal” and National is currently in its Autumn or perhaps Winter. Therefore, all the sudden “talk of knives, fretful meetings and calamity” is premature.

The Spinoff’s Toby Manhire also has a useful discussion of National’s polling and where they might be going – see: Judith Collins just leapfrogged Simon Bridges. Does she now try to crush him?

Manhire says Bridges could have expected a better poll result, but his colleagues might be best to wait it out: “It’s all the rougher because he’s actually had a decent last few months. After the whiplash of the Jami-Lee Ross saga he seemed to emerge stronger, or at maybe just somehow liberated. Tax was obviously a sensible focus for his first major initiative of the year. He might not have won much media attention at Waitangi, but his speech at the powhiri was impressive. He can reasonably point out that 42% is hardly a nosedive – under MMP that remains a healthy result. And we’ve barely begun the second act of the term. As everyone agrees, 2019 is the year that Labour must deliver on its promises, with or despite its oxygen-hungry government partners. Bridges will be urging his colleagues to let him get stuck in.”

Finally, to get a sense of Bridges’ last year as leader of the National Party, and all the ups and downs, see my blog post Cartoons about National Party leader Simon Bridges.