Week in Politics: National leadership speculation starts from the inside

8:35 pm on 3 May 2019

By Peter Wilson*

Opinion - Another week of speculation about Simon Bridges' leadership of the National Party, and it's coming from inside the caucus.

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

National Party leader Simon Bridges is having to respond to rumours about the possibility of a new party leader coming into the picture now. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Speculation about leadership change in a political party is like rust - it's very difficult to stop and it eats away at trust, confidence and stability.

Eventually, it becomes so bad that drastic measures have to be taken to get rid of it.

That's what Mr Bridges was trying to deal with when he told his party and caucus this week that unity was vital. What he meant was that they should get in behind him and shut up.

The worst thing for party stability is MPs talking anonymously to the media about their leader.

Here's an example. Just hours before Tuesday's caucus meeting, Newshub posted this item saying Mr Bridges would be worried going into it: "Before the Easter break, MPs approached Newshub with concerns about Bridges' leadership abilities, with one saying 'the numbers are firming up for Judith'."

There were similar reports elsewhere about growing support for a Judith Collins takeover, and Māori Television quoted a former National MP, Claudette Hauiti, as saying Ms Collins had the numbers to roll Mr Bridges and she knew it.

Judith Collins

Judith Collins insists she isn't interested in the leadership for the National Party. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Tuesday's caucus meeting came and went with no leadership challenge, Mr Bridges didn't call for a vote of confidence, and National lurched into another week of "holding the government to account".

That doesn't stop the rust and it will continue to do its work.

Voters don't like instability within a party. They start losing confidence in its ability to manage itself, and if it can't keep its own house in order it isn't seen as a stable and reliable alternative government.

National's problems began with a gradual slide in the polls, which was perceived to be linked with Mr Bridges' poor performance and his failure to make a favourable impact with the public.

At the same time, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was maintaining her strong lead as preferred prime minister, and then her handling of the 15 March mosque attack pushed her even higher.

After the last election, National had a lead of up to 10 points over Labour. Although it hadn't been able to form a government it was unquestionably the most popular party in Parliament.

That has been reversed, and it is hovering around the 40 percent mark in the polls. If it suffers a sustained dip below 40 percent, MPs are very likely to decide the time has come to do something about it.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern talking about the Child Poverty Reduction bill.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is maintaining her strong lead as the preferred leader of the country. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

But it won't be a good time for anyone else to take over the leadership. Unless some catastrophic misfortune strikes the government, it will win a second term next year. Whoever is leader of the opposition will have to try to survive for another three years.

So one scenario is to leave Mr Bridges where he is, let him lose the election, and then give him the boot if he doesn't step down. There will be a new leader to fight the 2024 election, with a much better chance of winning because the government will be looking for a third term.

The downside is that between now and the next election National's slide could continue, putting it in a weak position.

The party hasn't forgotten the 2002 horror story, and today's circumstances are similar.

Labour, under a popular prime minister, Helen Clark, was going for a second term against National led by Bill English.

The result: Labour 52 seats, National 27 - its worst ever defeat. National MPs barely filled two rows in the debating chamber.

It doesn't seem likely that National could lose that badly next year because it holds such a strong majority over Labour in the current Parliament, but it can't afford to rely on that.

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Paula Bennett with party leader Simon Bridges and Bill English, who back in 2002 suffered National's worst electoral defeat. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

As for Ms Collins, apparently the only one with enough support to replace Mr Bridges, she is maintaining a very careful "I'm not interested" attitude while pledging loyalty to the party leadership.

She has previously said she doesn't want the job, describing it as horrible.

None of that counts for much. MPs usually deny having leadership ambitions and then, when the challenge is mounted, they're doing it for the good of the party at the insistence of their caucus colleagues.

There's a good case for having Ms Collins as party leader, apart from her proven competence as a Cabinet minister and the fact that she's the best attack politician National has.

Ms Ardern is going to be very hard to take down. She's nice, people like her, she doesn't use personal attacks and rarely denigrates opposition politicians.

So when she is attacked there's a risk it will be counter-productive, that the attacker is seen as nasty and unreasonable.

That's a particularly difficult issue for men, and National probably already knows that it's going to take a woman to beat her.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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