Comment: Bridges looks for small mercies as slide continues

10:42 am on 16 April 2019

By Sam Sachdeva* for Newsroom

Opinion - The latest poll results may not be Simon Bridges' worst nightmare - but they still fuel the sense that his leadership of the National Party is in inexorable decline.

Simon Bridges talk to media after Jami-Lee Ross releases a phone call about a $100,000 donation to the National Party.

National Party leader Simon Bridges. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Simon Bridges may want to adopt a new mantra: be thankful for small mercies.

The latest 1 NEWS Colmar Brunton poll is not pretty reading for the National Party leader, but it could have been worse.

While Labour climbed three points and National dropped two, there were some who thought the gap would grow wider given Jacinda Ardern's flawless performance in the wake of the Christchurch terror attack.

National at its lowest under Bridges is still higher than Labour ever managed with Phil Goff, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little as Opposition leaders.

But those mercies are small indeed when you look at the bigger picture: a slow but steady erosion of the peaks scaled by John Key and Bill English.

The eight-point gap between Labour (48 percent) and National (40) grows to 14 once the Greens are added to the picture, 18 with New Zealand First.

With no viable electoral friends having emerged yet - despite Bridges' optimistic talk of new parties coming to his aid - it's difficult to see National reaching the magic number it would need to govern alone, or even with the help of the one-man band that is David Seymour's ACT.

But beyond the raw numbers, Bridges is simply not passing the sniff test; he has begun to resemble a clumsy, Clouseau-esque waiter stumbling from one disaster to the next.

Take National's culture review, commissioned by Bridges last October after a number of women allegedly felt manipulated and abused by rogue MP Jami-Lee Ross.

Jami-Lee Ross addresses media

Independent MP Jami-Lee Ross. Photo: RNZ/ Rebekah Parsons-King

Hailed at the time as an effort to ensure National's women felt safe in the workplace, Bridges has since revealed that no female MPs appear to have spoken to the reviewer - an expert he will not name, who has worked on a report he has not read and will not release until a wider review into the treatment of parliamentary staff is made public.

Then there is his treatment of the "emotional junior staffer" who made the decision to delete a party petition critical of the UN Migration Compact following the Christchurch shootings.

There is clearly unease within the caucus at the treatment of Brian Anderton - someone who does not seem to fit the "junior staffer" tag, given his years of work for the party - and the handling of the petition issue.

A sudden, suspect retirement

And the sudden retirement of list MP Nuk Korako, after less than two terms, does not suggest a leader entirely in control of his caucus.

Chair of the Maori Affairs Committee Tutehounuku (Nuk) Korako listens to a coroner about practices surrounding whanau access to tupapaku (deceased).

National MP Nuk Korako announced his retirement yesterday. Photo: RNZ / Phil Smith

There have been suggestions that Korako was unhappy with being whipped to vote against a Labour member's bill which would have given Ngāi Tahu permanent representation on Environment Canterbury. Korako is a member of the iwi's board.

Wilder rumours have included a suggestion Korako was contemplating crossing the floor to vote against his party and in favour of the legislation; that clearly did not transpire and may be an exaggeration, but that it would even be mooted as a possibility should concern Bridges.

Of course, there is good reason to think anyone else in his shoes would also be struggling.

In Ardern, Bridges faces a transcendent leader who has repeatedly shown her ability to connect with the public, a skill which has only been amplified by her response to the mosque shootings.

New Zealand's political history also counts against him: the country has not had a one-term government since 1975, and that was due in large part to the death of the popular Norman Kirk (a fact Bridges conveniently omits when drawing parallels between that Labour government and the present-day administration).

Those two factors alone would be enough to deter many aspiring leaders from seeking to depose Bridges, at least this side of the election.

But those calculations may not deter someone like Judith Collins, who could see the narrow window between now and polling day as her best chance to win over her colleagues before a more palatable alternative is ready to run post-2020.

All is not lost for Bridges: the Easter and Anzac break is a chance for him to step away from Parliament's pressure cooker, reset his strategy and figure out how to best damage the government rather than his own party.

Unfortunately for him, there's been little this year to suggest he's capable of doing that - and once an Opposition leader starts to spiral (think Andrew Little) it's difficult to pull out of that nosedive.

*Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's political editor, covering foreign affairs, trade, defence, and security issues.

This story was originally published on the newsroom website.

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