• Dumping Simon Bridges May Be Just the Easy Option

    Simon Bridges may seem to have been around for a long time but, in truth, he has been leader of the National party for a matter of only months rather than years.

    The qualities that persuaded his colleagues to vote him in to the leadership must surely, in other words, still be there and front of mind for National MPs who had every chance less than a year ago to survey the field and make their choice. What they saw in Bridges was, presumably, that he was a personable young part-Maori family man, with an excellent academic record, and was a proven (and combative) political warrior with a good grasp of parliamentary procedure and an ability to more than hold his own in debate.

    Those qualities are still there – and their value has presumably not faded away in the minds of his supporters. Yet it is undeniable that he is now in trouble and that some commentators are saying that if he does not fall upon his sword soon, someone else will pick it up with violence in mind.

    It is certainly true that he has failed to commend himself to the wider electorate who have not, on the whole, warmed to him. And he has on occasion made matters worse for himself, as in the case of the “leaker” from within his own party – an issue that he has seriously mishandled by letting it drift on unresolved and unnecessarily extending its life.

    Politics is of course a tough business – and if National’s private polling is telling them that Simon Bridges has failed to fire, then it is only a matter of time before they pull the trigger. But before they do so, they should perhaps pause and reflect.

    The most important question they must address is – what has changed since they elected Bridges as leader? They had every chance to survey the available options last year, and no new options have presented themselves in the meantime. If Bridges was the best choice less than a year ago, who has emerged to lead them to a different conclusion this time?

    That question has no obvious answer, but it gets more difficult still. Politicians are able to persuade themselves of almost anything – so someone who was rejected last time might suddenly seem to be the answer to their prayers now. The danger now, though, is that they would not be making that judgment in isolation but would be looking for someone who was not Simon Bridges – with the result that someone who seemed unqualified, even unelectable, last time might suddenly seem the right choice on the simple ground that he or she was not the current leader with his admitted failings.

    In that situation, a political party can all too easily make a decision for negative rather than positive reasons. They could end up with someone who does not share Bridges’ shortcomings (or his strengths) but who has a different (but equally, or even more, damaging) set of limitations.

    The frontrunners in any new leadership contest would, in other words, almost certainly run on the basis that they could offer an option that promised a remedy to the current leader’s problems. But a fresh start could simply mean a set of fresh and even more intractable difficulties – a moment’s thought and a consideration of the most likely contenders will quickly establish what they might turn out to be. The temptation may be to overlook what was previously seen as a disqualification in the make-up of someone who had earlier been found to be wanting. A new leader may be different, but in the end just differently deficient.

    The lesson to draw is this. A political party that is having difficulty engaging with the voters should not imagine that changing the leader will solve the problem. It would do better to look at itself – at its record in government, at what it is seen to stand for, at its understanding (or lack of it) of the issues facing the country.

    Simon Bridges may not have been able to resolve overnight the problems that led to National’s election defeat – but he at least understands by now that a defeat is what it was. Supporting the leader, rather than changing him, may be National’s best chance of reversing that result next time.

    Bryan Gould
    9 October 2018