John Armstrong's opinion: Simon Bridges has to go, but is there another leader in National's ranks?

John Armstrong
Source: 1News

There are no attractive scenarios for the Opposition after a calamitous week from Bridges.

Simon Bridges has to go. The moment has surely arrived to call time on his leadership of the National Party.

But will he go? And will he do so willingly? If not willingly, is there anyone in National’s parliamentary ranks in possession of both the qualities and qualifications required of a leader? Who in addition has the gumption to force the issue and the guts to do battle with the incumbent?

The answer to that latter question has to be an emphatic and unqualified “no”. Were there an MP in National’s caucus who fitted that bill, Bridges would have been looking for a career switch many months ago.

Please don’t recite the words “Judith Collins” in response to that latter question. The exercise at hand is about how National might best tackle the party’s current crisis — not the creation of a new even bigger and more fraught one.

In order to find a pathway through the party’s conundrum, it is worth canvassing the possible scenarios which might present themselves in the party’s hour of need. They are not necessarily solutions, however.

First, National’s caucus could stick with the status quo. Taking the “do nothing” option and retaining Bridges as leader would mean a miracle of Biblical proportions would be required for the party to return to power. A far more likely scenario is that National will find itself on the receiving end of a thrashing of severe magnitude when September’s election rolls around.

Should the caucus choose to stick with this strategy, which isn’t a strategy, it would be advisable for it to bend down on its collective knees ASAP and start praying for divine intervention.

Regardless of whether or not unsourced rumours that some MPs are poised to mount a coup against him have any basis, you can be very sure of one thing, there will be a lot of talk going on. Though that might not result in much discernible action.

The pluses and minuses of ditching Bridges will have been canvassed to the point of exhaustion by the other 54 current members of the parliamentary wing of the main Opposition party.

Recent unpublished polls have registered a collapse in voter backing for National down to the level of 35 per cent. Were that percentage to be replicated in September’s ballot, as many as 14 current National MPs would be hunting for a new job.

Those who survived the triennial ballot and made it back to Parliament would be staring at a further three years on the Opposition benches.

It seems ridiculous to cite Bridges’ now infamous, yet innocuous post on Facebook as reason to dump him. There can be no ignoring the fact, however, that his mild criticism of the Prime Minister provoked a backlash on a scale which beggars belief.

True, you can question the validity of many of the thousands upon thousands of overwhelmingly negative reactions to that post. You can question how many of those claiming to be National voters while simultaneously lashing Bridges actually fitted that bill.

For all that, the number and tone of the responses would have told National’s MPs what they have long known but have been reluctant to admit. It was irrefutable evidence that National cannot win an election with Bridges as leader.

With less than four months to go before Parliament is scheduled to rise ahead of the election campaign, it all adds up to something that will be concentrating minds in National’s ranks.

If panic hasn’t yet broken out in that quarter, it darned well ought to be doing so. There is instead paralysis — or at least the appearance of such.

The notion that Bridges be allowed to stay on and fight the election might seem logical to those on the outside of the political tent. Under such a scenario, Bridges would take a hit for the team and then be swiftly replaced after the election.

Such defeatism is not part of a politician’s makeup, however. The prevailing ethic is deliver the goods today or you will die tomorrow.

What must be crushing to National’s morale is that prior to Covid-19 breaching the country’s borders, Bridges was (finally) delivering after a fashion.

Two successive 1 NEWS-Colmar Brunton polls had National and a resurgent ACT potentially securing the narrowest of majorities in the next Parliament.

Since then, for those like Bridges whose business is the business of politics, it has not just been lockdown. It has also been lockout.

The second scenario has those MPs who have concluded that Bridges must be dumped before he does any more damage to the party draft a letter addressed to him stating they have lost confidence in his leadership and requiring he resign forthwith.

Such a letter would require the signatures of a sizeable majority of MPs, most crucially the bulk of senior MPs with seats on the party’s front bench in Parliament. If there were doubts whether such an incipient rebellion had the numbers to carry a motion in the emergency caucus meeting which would have to be called to resolve matters one way or other, Bridges could deploy what might be termed The Helen Clark Option.

Such were the dreadful opinion poll ratings that Labour was registering under her leadership when the party was in Opposition in the early 1990s, a delegation of MPs went to her office and asked her to step down.

She refused to do so. She stared her colleagues down. Their revolt melted away.

Bridges might likewise choose not to go peacefully — or at least leave that threat hanging in the air. About the last thing National would want to happen would be for the transition to new leadership to be racked with infighting and dissent — especially during times of national crisis.

A third scenario would see Bridges demanding that those who want him gone put up or shut up. It would be his attempt to end the not-so-spasmodic speculation and rumour of a coup being just around the corner.

Doing so would be a mistake, however. Such attempts to display strength instead tend to expose just how weak a position a leader is really in.

Under a fourth scenario, Bridges would step down without fuss or fight and be replaced by a relative unknown, such as Todd Muller or Mark Mitchell. That might avert a thrashing, but National would still lose the election and likely still by quite some margin.

Jack Tame interviews National’s climate change spokesperson on farmers paying for agricultural emissions.

It would make no difference to the question of who would end up governing the country.

The near-universal consensus would currently be that the election has become one for Labour to lose rather than for National to win.

Thanks primarily to Ardern, Labour now looks unbeatable.

A fifth scenario would see the caucus go for broke and install Judith Collins as leader. She is a potential game-changer, no question. But she is barely more popular than Bridges. She might well change the game, but not in a manner National would want.

National’s Judith Collins was among those to speak movingly about the issue, ahead of the 70-50 vote.

During his two years-plus tenure in his prized position, Bridges has consciously shifted National markedly to the right in terms of ideology. That might yet turn out to have been one of his bigger mistakes. By example, with unemployment set to skyrocket to heights not registered since the 1930s due to circumstances way beyond the ordinary punter’s control, there is going to be little political market for beneficiary-bashing.

Putting someone regarded as being further to the right than Bridges in charge of National’s show does not sound like the brightest of ideas.

In summary, the above scenarios are the ones National is likely to encounter in the run-up to the election. There may well be others but they will be no more attractive. Thus the indecision. The stalemate cannot continue. If it isn’t broken, then National risks limping through the election campaign with a lame-duck leader going head-to-head with an opponent who is now in full and glorious flight.

The election looks like being no contest. The onus is consequently on Bridges to at least think about volunteering his resignation as leader. The caucus could choose not to accept it. Bridge's’ colleagues might regard the sanctioning of his exit as a “least worst” option and one they cannot or should not refuse. Which is why he is unlikely to do the cent thing.

So onwards limps National along a latter-day Road to Nowhere.