Simon Bridges on surviving in leadership role: 'I'm popularly supported'

12:50 pm on 26 July 2019

Power Play - Simon Bridges was chortling through the latest National attack ad on Labour as I arrived in his office for our interview.

Simon Bridges

Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

No qualms from the National Party leader about running social media hit jobs, unlike the Greens who performed a swift backtrack on their satirical ad featuring 'Soi-min' Bridges in a car yard, in an attempt to smear National's stance on electric vehicles earlier in the week.

National couldn't believe its luck. Not only were the Greens shamed into apologising by their own base but National saw the publicity around the story as just a high profile platform for its own message.

It's busy rolling out attack ads of its own, mainly focused on what it says are the sky-rocketing costs imposed by the coalition government on New Zealand households.

A screenshot from the Greens ad.

A screenshot from the Greens ad. Photo: RNZ

And we can already see shades of the campaign tactics successfully deployed by Scott Morrison in the Australian election - latch onto a simple message affecting the voter's back pocket and hit repeat, aided no doubt by increasingly sophisticated voter targeting through social media algorithms and analytics.

Even Mr Bridges' description of Boris Johnson as "buffoon-like" didn't create any major problems for him as he prepared to gather with the party faithful in Christchurch for the second time as leader.

He sees his party and himself as coming out the second half of this parliamentary term in a positive place; the odd bump in the road is nothing compared to the blistering few months Mr Bridges went through late last year at the hands of his former colleague Jami-Lee Ross.

Leadership

Mr Bridges' security as leader has been a constant refrain since then, with whispering campaigns designed to undermine him a regular feature.

Simon Bridges stands in the atrium of the National Party offices.

Simon Bridges says his party is doing the right things to be in power after the upcoming elections. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

But there are pockets of discontent about his leadership style and judgment shown when ordering the leak inquiry last year, through the "emotional junior staffer" controversy, and strong concerns about his ability to resonate with voters.

He would be as aware as anyone he cannot hand on heart say he has unanimous caucus support; in saying that it's a big ask with such a large group of opposition MPs, jockeying for power and always with half an eye on the polls and their own personal positions.

"I can survive," he declares, when asked about the danger zone if National's party vote starts to consistently fall below the 40 percent mark.

"I'm popularly supported, I believe we have strength in numbers, we're doing the right things to be the government after the next election.

He did not believe the polls would slip, saying there was a solid core of National voters in New Zealand, in fact he asserted the party was "potentially as or more popular than we were at election day."

But he was reluctant to discuss any aspect of the internal polls that might back that view.

"That would be telling, we try very hard not to talk about our private polling in any sort of detail, sometimes I let slip, I try not to genuinely."

But there have been deliberate leaks to journalists of Labour's UMR polls putting National below 40 percent, clearly designed to increase the pressure; helping him for now is the absence of a contender that could garner the degree of trust and support needed for a successful coup. The balancing point will be if National's party vote starts to slide and MPs get to the point where they're willing to roll the dice on someone else.

Friends and allies

National remains hopeful a nascent political party will appear in time to give it an ally in 2020.

An optimistic hope given the track record of parties including the Conservatives, the Internet Party and TOP - plenty of money and publicity but falling short of the electorate seat or 5 percent of the party vote needed for a place in Parliament.

Aside from ACT, the only possible option for National in the current Parliament is New Zealand First, a party now in coalition with Labour but well known for positioning itself as independent come election time.

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Winston Peters, leader of the New Zealand First party, known for positioning itself as independent come election time. Photo: RNZ / DOM THOMAS

Mr Bridges says his strategy is to be "colour blind" when it comes to holding the three government parties to account.

"Not to be treating them specially because they're from New Zealand First, or for that matter the Green Party."

It's a "safe position", he says, "it's not personal, it is not about the party per se."

He will state National's position relating to ACT, New Zealand First and any other relevant party next year.

While coming out as the strongest party is his priority, he outlines three likely scenarios after the 2020 election.

"Where one of the parties in government says 'you know what we could go with National' and clearly the most obvious one is New Zealand First - really the ball is in their court and to date, on form, that's not a position Winston Peters seems to hold."

"Bluntly speaking", he says, another is one of those parties fails to get back into Parliament, making things "very interesting".

The third is "genuinely new parties" from the outside, and he doesn't believe they need to show themselves now.

"Much closer to the election ... we will see things shape up, whether that's a Christian/Conservative party that as we know can have legs, whether it's a genuine, non-aligned environmental party, whether it's a Māori-style party."

Had he seen any evidence of such a party? - "Well if I had I wouldn't be telling you."

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