Bryce Edwards: What are the chances of “Prime Minister Simon Bridges” in 2020?

Bryce Edwards: What are the chances of “Prime Minister Simon Bridges” in 2020?

Will New Zealand have its first Māori prime minister next year? That’s what Simon Bridges is suggesting, and despite scepticism from critics and commentators, there’s good reason to take him seriously. The National Party annual conference in the weekend went well for the party, and there are other signs to suggest the chances of “Prime Minister Simon Bridges” are looking stronger than ever.

In his keynote speech in the weekend, Bridges seemed to relish the fact that his ordinary background, along with that of other colleagues such as Paula Bennett, is picked on by opponents. Amongst other points, Bridges said: “It is the National Party that has shown that a young Ngāti Maniapoto boy from West Auckland, who talks like a boy from West Auckland, the son of a Baptist preacher and a teacher, can grow up to become the first Māori leader of a mainstream party in New Zealand, and the first Māori Prime Minister of our great country.”

Replying to this last point, political journalist Sam Sachdeva wrote: “To call the last clause premature would be an understatement to say the very least… the odds are firmly stacked against Bridges. Tougher battles await the National leader” – see his column, Bridges rebuilds confidence after trying year.

Sachdeva’s column is a very good examination of the place that Bridges and National are in at the moment, and it concludes that over the weekend the leader “has at least bought himself some more time” to fight the battles necessary to succeed. Even talk of leadership coups seems to be off the table, given Bridges stronger performance lately.

Sachdeva believes that leadership rival Judith Collins “will have to wait in the wings a little longer, after Bridges’ Sunday speech seemed to create a mixture of excitement and relief, winning over even those sceptical of his performance to date.”

Other journalists observing the National conference considered it a success for both party and leader. The Herald’s Derek Cheng gave a strong review of Bridges speech, saying “He needed a king hit for his keynote speech, and he delivered one” – see: Simon Bridges delivers speech to rapturous audience at National Party conference (paywalled).

Cheng reported a strong reception from the party: “The rapture in the auditorium after his speech was far more convincing than on Saturday [for his previous speech], and the consensus, even among the sceptics in the party faithful, was that it was easily his best speech. ‘By a long shot,’ said one MP. Another said that it had transformed some doubtful delegates into believers.”

Similarly, Richard Harman says the conference “ended up going far better than sceptics within the party feared it might” and that “for the meantime” the question of Bridges’ leadership seems to be off the table – see: Most of the Nats survive the weekend.

And Harman also wrote yesterday that “It looks as though the ongoing low-key leadership challenge to National Leader Simon Bridges has fizzled out”, pointing to the promotion yesterday of another alleged leadership rival, Todd Muller – see: Bridges gives Muller huge promotion.

Harman argues that Muller’s promotion – in which he gives up his Climate Change portfolio, taking up the more prestigious Agriculture from departing MP Nathan Guy – indicates that Bridges no longer regards the new agriculture spokesperson as a threat to his leadership: “That Bridges has felt confident enough to give him such a big lift up the caucus rankings suggests that he must believe that till the election at least, Muller poses no threat.”

Harman also says that Muller “was believed to have the backing of some senior members of the caucus. But many of those who supported him believe it is too early for him to take the leadership now; that he is not widely known enough among the public”.

However, for a very different theory on the promotion, see Thomas Coughlan’s Todd Muller promoted in National Party reshuffle, but climate change demoted. He argues the wider National Party has become dissatisfied with Muller’s role in the climate change portfolio: “At the party’s conference over the weekend, Muller was hit by allegations that the party was moving too fast on climate change. Many members still do not believe in climate change, and it appeared there was still a strong voice within the party that doesn’t want to move on the issue. This appeared to have fed back to the party leadership, which is solely responsible for reshuffle decisions.”

Successful conference and announcements

National’s announcement of a new cancer agency policy has been judged to be very successful. RNZ’s Jane Patterson thought it was clever politics: “No-one will argue against the merits of a plan to tackle cancer, so it was a smart move of National’s Simon Bridges to unveil a plan hitting the government where it hurts. It has also put the coalition on the back foot, getting out a solid policy weeks before the Health Minister David Clark makes public his own action plan” – see: National’s cancer agency promise a smart political move.

Even some of National’s biggest critics seemed to have praise for the announcement. For example, despite seeing the policy as inconsistent with National’s time in government, David Cormack welcomed the policy as a sign that National wasn’t going too rightwing under Bridges: “it’s a particularly good thing when you consider that New Zealand’s largest right-of-centre party is wanting to put more money into socialised healthcare. All around the world, democracies are battling with right wing reactionaries… While here in New Zealand we get a commitment to fund more social healthcare” – see: It’s National v National on cancer (paywalled).

And Cormack pointed out that this seemed to be a trend under Bridges, as the big policy announcement at his previous conference had been for smaller class sizes. Similarly, political journalist Henry Cooke, pointed out how interesting it was that these types of policies were so well received by the National Party membership: “This is not the kind of stuff to you would expect to get the National Party faithful standing and applauding. It’s not a law and order policy or tax cut or a primary sector subsidy – it’s new health spending. This is the kind of thing Labour does. In fact, Labour promised to set up a similar cancer centre in opposition and haven’t got around to doing it yet” – see: National ventures into vacated Labour territory with cancer announcement.

Cooke also suggests the cancer policy will be electorally successful: “The inequity in care across the country is a real issue and one that will rankle National’s rural base, as care is generally better in larger cities. Not many Kiwis think people in Australia should be able to get life-saving drugs cheap when we can’t. And with the spectre of the provincial growth fund in the background Bridges now gets to ride around the country comparing what he calls a slush fund to his own cancer drugs fund, making the implicit argument that both the Government and National want to spend more money, National would just spend it better.”

Strong polling and a “pathway to power”

The best news for National actually came after the conference, with Monday’s 1News Colmar Brunton poll putting National on 45 per support, which was up one point, and two points ahead of Labour.

According to Claire Trevett, this strong result, taken before the conference and cancer treatment announcement, will be seen by Bridges “as vindicating his decision to focus on cost of living attacks – and to pit his party’s policies against Ardern’s personality” – see: Relief for National’s Simon Bridges, none for Winston Peters in new poll (paywalled).

She also points out that “National’s campaign against the Government’s fuel tax increases and proposed ‘car tax’ to help fund subsidies for electric cars was also at full tilt as the polling was under way.”

For the National Party’s own pollster, David Farrar, the results are a “remarkably good result for National after 21 months of opposition” – see: Latest poll. He points out that the numbers appear to put National in striking range of winning the next election: “All National needs to do is take 2% off Labour or 1% off the Greens and they’re in Government.”

There is still a “pathway to power” being seen by National supporters, which is a crucial motivating factor. And Peter Dunne has written further in the weekend about what National might need in order to win: “current electoral mathematics offer National some hope. Assuming it holds all its current seats, regains Botany, and sees Act over the line again in Epsom, it would need to win just 4 of the 17 seats New Zealand First and the Greens hold currently to be able to form a government. If the Greens keep their seats, and New Zealand First falls out, National would need to win just 4 of the 9 New Zealand First seats to have a majority” – see: The next election is not over yet.

Dunne’s calculations, however, suggest that Winston Peters might still be the barrier to a National win: “if New Zealand First remains in the mix, Labour’s re-election prospects are boosted considerably – with National most likely left to ponder at least three more years of rebuilding.”

On this topic, broadcaster Kate Hawkesby argues that ruling out New Zealand First would help Bridges with his own leadership image, making him look more decisive, but also increase National’s chance of governing next year – see: National leader Simon Bridges need to be more decisive – and rule out Winston Peters.

Here’s her main advice to the National leader: “he should see the wood for the trees, realise Winston’s never dealing with him in a million years and rule him out. I am of the ‘rule him out’ camp… So forget them. There is no deal. Let them fall below the 5 per cent. And in ruling them out, Simon Bridges gets to look like a decisive and principled leader who shows strength, and takes action.”

Mike Hosking provides similar advice to Bridges: “What he could do, and for the life of me I can’t work out why he hasn’t, is cut Winston Peters out of the equation. Rule New Zealand First out, and in doing that you take away his kingmaker status, and I would guess potentially suck up a point or two of support which would almost certainly put him below the five per cent threshold” – see: National leader Simon Bridges is not a rock star, but he’s hardly a shambles either.

John Key also turned up at the conference and gave his advice about New Zealand First: “It’s not for me to say, and ultimately every leader has to make their own call. But I think Winston Peters’ colours were pretty clearly identified a long time ago, certainly on display in 2017 when he made a smaller party the Government” – see Derek Cheng’s Sir John Key to Simon Bridges at National Party conference: Don’t get disheartened.

Bridges is reported in this article saying that he’s still optimistic about other minor parties emerging that might help National govern: “I’m not saying I have a clear sense that will happen. But with the right candidates and the right people, it might happen… And there’s still a Māori Party that has a couple of per cent on any kind of week. I think there will be options”.

National’s pathway to power has also been greatly enhanced by an improved performance recently by Bridges and his colleagues. This is well detailed by Audrey Young in her column, National heads into conference in a state of limbo over leader Simon Bridges (paywalled). Young says: “Bridges is performing better in the media. Bridges had an excellent week this past week. He was an even match for Jacinda Ardern in the House over the cost of living, which is not an unimportant arena”.

And in general, under Bridges National is making life difficult for the Government: “he and his team have been very good at picking issues and creating messages that resonate with voters and get under the Government’s skin. It began with the scores of reviews, commissions and working parties set up by Jacinda Ardern and continues over cost of living issues, roading, and taxation. As time progresses and official statistics show increases in state housing waiting lists, rents, numbers on job seeker support, hardship grants, hospital waiting lists, cancer treatment times, the scope for National is expanding daily. Bridges has been especially successful on taxation.”

In the end, however, it might all come down to fate and some good caucus and party membership discipline according to Liam Hehir – see: National’s path to victory in 2020. He says that whether Bridges becomes prime minister next year might simply be down to the performance of the Greens and New Zealand First.

However, despite some of these more positive evaluations of National at the moment, some commentators are still predicting doom, with National insider Matthew Hooton leading the pack with a devastating appraising on Friday – see: National stumbling to defeat (paywalled).

Hooton says that the leadership issue is still the main problem: “Bridges’ unfavourability ratings are at levels seldom seen by pollsters. Those conducting focus groups say it is difficult to even get a conversation going on the possibility of him being Prime Minister, so improbable do voters consider the idea. Sadly for him, voters simply won’t take seriously anything Bridges has to say, so National has no effective means of communicating policy to the public, even if it had any.”

He concludes: “Could things really get worse under new management, whether Collins, Muller or even Nikki Kaye?”

Finally, for recent cartoons on National and its leader, see my blog post, Cartoons about National Party leader Simon Bridges (updated).