To have a leadership challenge, you need a challenger. And there’s no evidence whatsoever that is happening in the National Party right now, writes editor of The Bulletin Alex Braae.
It dominated political conversations last week, and has stretched into the news this morning. Is Simon Bridges losing his grip on the leadership of the National Party? Here’s some from Radio NZ, the NZ Herald, and Newshub. And this morning, Radio NZ headlined a story with ‘Simon Bridges: National Party leadership not at risk’. It’s not a place any politician wants to be in, but it should probably all be taken with a big grain of salt too.
Why? It’s easy and fun to opine that a party leader’s hold on the job is in trouble, because they’re claims that can be made without an awful lot to back them up. If the claims are right the pundit looks like an oracle, but if they’re wrong nobody remembers or cares.
When articles like that come up, it pays to ask this: is there any actual evidence that a challenge is being prepared? Are there credible rumours of a rival MP doing the numbers? David Shearer had David Cunliffe. Malcolm Turnbull had Peter Dutton. And the National MP that some talk up as a challenger, Judith Collins, is showing absolutely no signs of doing so at the moment. In fact none of the National caucus, presumably packed full of vaulting ambition, have taken the opportunity to publicly undermine their leader.
Perhaps something is brewing behind the scenes? If it is, the supposed plotters are doing an astonishingly good job of keeping it hidden. The infamous expenses leak (of which, reminder, nothing is publicly known about the identity of the leaker or their motivations) could have been the precursor to a coup. Or, there are about 100 other plausible explanations as to why that data came out a few days before it was scheduled to be released anyway. And it also pays to note that none of the current chat is coming from National Party people, just as very little of the leadership speculation surrounding Labour between 2008-2017 came from Labour people (the long march of David Cunliffe’s supporters aside)
As Andrea Vance correctly points out in her Stuff column, “there is no suggestion he is finished just yet. His caucus remain loyal and there is no hint of a leadership challenge,” even though in her column Vance says she doesn’t believe he’ll ever be PM. But it’s the one question that nobody seems to have any answer to, and is really the only one that matters when it comes to spills – who is the contender? Until anything like an answer to that happens, it’s safe to say Bridges’ job is secure.
Another key question that those speculating on the leadership can’t really put up a credible answer to: why would National, a party famed for internal discipline over the last decade, shoot itself in the foot with a coup? Why risk being 44% in the polls for the outside chance of getting to 45%? The recent experience of Australia’s Liberal Party should demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that messy leadership fights make political parties that wallow in them look like idiots. Sure, as Danyl McLaughlan pointed out in his piece this morning, leadership challenges aren’t necessarily rational actors making sensible and sober decisions. But it’s pretty implausible that two years out from an election, and just nine months after the last leadership election, people who have got where they are by making mostly sensible decisions around their own political fortunes would decide to toss that all away.
But won’t Bridges’ recent blunders over the handling of Jami-Lee Ross’s personal leave have hurt his support with the public? It’s really hard to say, because while a lot of voters will have followed coverage of that story over the last week, there’s also a significant number who will have only seen Simon Bridges in his cameo on Jono and Ben. And nobody doing punditry (myself included, right now) really has any idea how those people will respond to that, unless there’s been extensive internal polling or focus groups.
The reason for this is that for people who follow politics really closely, the minds of voters who don’t follow politics at all can be almost unfathomable. Bridges may have come across as likeable, or he may have come across as a plonker – on both the Jami-Lee Ross situation and the Jono and Ben one. But judging how non-political people will react to either or both is really difficult for political obsessives.
What we do know though is that in two years there’s going to be an election. And given I’ve had a pop at various bits of commentary in this section, it’s only fair I put a chunk of my own credibility on the line too, so here it is: I feel completely confident in saying Simon Bridges will lead National into that election. If I turn out to be wrong, please feel free to start rumours about someone taking my job.
An earlier version of this column appeared in this morning’s edition of The Bulletin.
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