Bridges' great escape depends on a good plan

10:12 am on 17 October 2018

Analysis - For Simon Bridges, emerging unscathed from the Jami-Lee Ross saga is the political equivalent of escaping from Alcatraz.

Simon Bridges addresses media

Simon Bridges addresses media Photo: RNZ/ Rebekah Parsons-King

It's possible and there may even be a precedent. But he needs a brilliant plan, he needs to execute it and he needs a lot of luck.

To prevent Simon Bridges falling down, a lot of things have to go right - and they have to go right at the right time.

He needs to be cleared quickly and absolutely by the police over allegations that he has breached electoral laws, by attempting to disguise party donations made by a wealthy Chinese businessman.

The denial from Bridges was strong. "It has zero chance of success," he said. "I have done absolutely nothing wrong and that will be shown to be the case."

He may be proved right. But when? The police don't operate to timeframes desired by politicians. This could take many weeks. Police are especially cautious when it comes to allegations involving politicians.

The Electoral Commission may also become involved, which could pose another hurdle for the National leader.

But just proving he has not broken the law will not be enough. He also has to show he hasn't fallen short of ethical standards expected of someone auditioning to be Prime Minister.

Much of that will depend on what is on the tape Ross says he made of a phone call with his former leader.

Bridges also has to hope that his version of events matches with whatever comment is eventually made by the donor himself.

So far Bridges has simply evaded questions about what he knew of the donation. That won't make those questions go away.

And this story is not going away anytime soon. Ross has ensured that by standing as an independent in the Botany by-election.

Whether he can win his old seat back against a new National candidate barely matters. Bridges again has nowhere to hide. He has to have National win the seat strongly - another test of his leadership - and he has to campaign at his candidate's side with the daily news cycle focused on the saga.

One rogue MP - even an ex-MP - can cause a tonne of grief for a leader. Neil Kirton did it to National and New Zealand First after he was sacked as a minister in the 1990s.

Maurice Williamson did it to National in the early 2000s, relegated to the backbench and famously coming in to Parliament with binoculars as he made a show of getting used to his new vantage point.

More recently Chris Carter did it to Labour leader Phil Goff. He was booted out and someone eventually found a job for him in a war zone but not before he'd inflicted many wounds on his former party.

Eventually the media gets tired of reporting revelations from disgruntled former MPs. Eventually. But given Ross was a party whip and a front bench MP, what he knows will have currency for some time yet. What's more he gets to choose what to release and when, allowing him to set the agenda on Botany campaign trail.

The only thing Bridges can do is hope that Ross loses credibility, lessening the impact of his blows. Bridges and his allies are already hinting they will return fire on Ross, alleging he has a pattern of bad behaviour.

This too comes with the risk that it fuels a raging political bonfire.

Which brings us to the final and highest hurdle for Bridges. Because even if this long list of things goes right for him he may still not survive.

If the story continues as it began - blow by blow in prime time - then it won't really matter whether Bridges is exonerated or not. Many voters are going to get the impression National is simply at war with itself and needs a longer spell in Opposition to sort itself out.

If that happens National's mid-40s poll ratings - the very thing that has kept Bridges' leadership safe - could start to slide and that's when he becomes genuinely vulnerable.

That is the death trap he needs to avoid. It is possible. But it would genuinely be a great escape.

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