Simon Bridges, the 'characterful' politician, bows out

9:41 am on 16 March 2022

Power Play - "Even the bad times were good" - on that chipper note, Simon Bridges bows out after the wild ride that's been his political career.

Simon Bridges announcing he is retiring from politics.

Photo: RNZ / Jane Patterson

He burst onto the scene after the 2008 general election, marking the end of Winston Peters' time as MP for Tauranga, and New Zealand First's place in Parliament that term.

Bridges came in off the back of the John Key win, a change of government after three terms of Labour - a brash young lawyer whose hopes at the time were to maybe progress enough to secure a select committee chairmanship.

He achieved far more than that; a slew of Cabinet positions in National governments and eventually the party leadership.

But politics is all about timing, and it just wasn't right for Bridges.

He took over from Bill English in the months after the 2017 election, which many National MPs and members viewed as having been stolen by Labour, with the help of New Zealand First. As with any defeat after a long period of governing, the caucus took some time to accept the loss - the caucus he inherited.

In his first year he worked hard and held up the party's support, taking on the new coalition government, but Covid would be his undoing. He lost his gloss through 2019 and 2020 as New Zealand was first rocked by the pandemic; Bridges battled for months as the opposition leader but lost the top job after Covid had worn down his personal popularity enough for others to make a move.

There was also Jami-Lee Ross - Bridges' former right hand man who went rogue and mounted a full-scale campaign to dethrone Bridges and destroy his reputation. It was a battle royale and showed Bridges had the hide of a rhinoceros. He would eventually see off Ross and (to the extent any National leader could at that point) maintain the loyalty of his caucus.

He showed the same dogged determination to scrap it out when Judith Collins tried to dramatically demote him last year - a move that backfired and lost her the leadership.

Former National Party leader Simon Bridges stands with other members of the party after Judith Collins is announced as the new leader, taking over from Todd Muller.

Former National Party leader Simon Bridges stands with other members of the party after Judith Collins is announced as the new leader, taking over from Todd Muller. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

It had become a bit of a regular thing for National over the past few years to announce a resignation via statement, dispatch the MP home to protect their privacy and an inevitable scandal emerging soon after.

Not the case this time, insists Bridges: "Absolutely not, if there was I'd probably stay and tough it out".

His departure, though, is as significant for the party as it is for marking the end of a political career.

It not only leaves a vacancy in the crucial finance role, but Bridges is an experienced and skilled politician; his absence will have a greater impact because the caucus has been so hollowed out in recent years, both from high-profile resignations and the impact of the 2020 election.

National's credentials are supposed to be as the best economic manager and the finance spokesperson is the face. Bridges has been performing strongly, including the 'cost of living crisis' attack line and had been forming a good team with Luxon. There's no suggestion his departure is directly related to Luxon's leadership or any personal tensions, but the loss in last year's leadership contest would no doubt have been instrumental in his decision.

Christopher Luxon and Simon Bridges

Chris Luxon and Simon Bridges appeared to have been working well together. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

It also leaves a vacancy in the blue seat of Tauranga. Labour's already downplaying its chances of winning the seat in a by-election - you have to go back to the 1930s for when it last held that electorate and the party won't want this to be seen as a snap poll on the government.

National will have to pick a strong candidate, with no skeletons in the closet. There may be other candidates looking for an opportunity but it's National's to lose, an outcome they'll be doing everything to avoid.

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