The first day back in parliament comes with double gloom for Simon Bridges: not only did Labour overtake National in Newshub’s poll, but the ‘strong and decisive’ one is preferred as PM. Who’d bet against Collins having another tilt at the leadership before the next election, writes Toby Manhire
Just less than four months ago, as the country stood shellshocked from the great Jami-Lee Ross meltdown of 2018, Simon Bridges suffered what can only be described as a stinker of a poll. Colmar Brunton and One News put his National Party down to 43%, two behind Labour. Bridges’ preferred-PM number had slumped to 7% versus Ardern’s Jacinda Ardern’s 42%. But forget her: much more troubling for Bridges was the sight of Judith Collins’ headlights seeping through the back window: she was up three points to 5%.
Asked about the result then, the National leader was bullish. “We’ll be back ahead of Labour very soon, I have no doubt about that,” he said. “We’ll get stronger, and I think you’ll see that in the next polls.” Forty-three per cent, he assured New Zealanders, was “temporary … we’ll quickly surpass Labour again.” It was as if he’d set himself an ultimatum.
In the short term, he met it: an early December Colmar/One News poll put National back in front of Labour. But last night, 15 days shy of the first anniversary of becoming leader, up walked an even stinkerer poll. The Reid/Newshub survey gave National its worst showing in the poll’s 12-year history – 41.6% to Labour’s 47.5%. As if that weren’t bad enough for Bridges, this: Collins had overtaken him as preferred PM, with 6.2% selecting her, to 5% for him.
First, the caveats: we should never read too much into one poll, and there are woefully few to chew on these days; Colmar and Reid are methodologically different; polling was completed 10 days ago, before, for example, Waitangi. But all the same this is a result that will waft like a bad smell through the National Party. When Jacinda Ardern polled higher than then leader Andrew Little it created an irresistible momentum. National remains today miles higher than the poll doldrums in which Labour was stuck back then, but nevertheless Collins’ leapfrog of Bridges carries a force of its own.
It does so especially when National is eclipsed in the single-party vote. As long as it can beat Labour head-to-head, National can overcome even a lack of any coalition dance partners; it just needs to do everything it can to coax the smaller parties’ votes under the 5% threshold – by, say, ruling out working with one party and encouraging similarly branded newcomers to eat into another. Even that optimistic scenario, however, falls apart if National can’t out-poll Labour.
So it’s a miserable backdrop against which Simon Bridges arrives for today’s resumption of debate in the House of Representatives. He’d be forgiven for flinching at the sight of conversations between two National MPs, even if they’re probably talking about cricket. It’s all the rougher because he’s actually had a decent last few months. After the whiplash of the Jami-Lee Ross saga he seemed to emerge stronger, or at maybe just somehow liberated. Tax was obviously a sensible focus for his first major initiative of the year. He might not have won much media attention at Waitangi, but his speech at the powhiri was impressive. He can reasonably point out that 42% is hardly a nosedive – under MMP that remains a healthy result. And we’ve barely begun the second act of the term. As everyone agrees, 2019 is the year that Labour must deliver on its promises, with or despite its oxygen-hungry government partners. Bridges will be urging his colleagues to let him get stuck in.
But we live in impatient times. Whether it’s professional football or Australian politics, people increasingly demand almost immediate results, upon fear of termination. After so many years of reliably stratospheric polling under John Key, MPs will start thinking about whether they’re secure in their seats.
And it’s no secret that Collins has an ambition to lead the party. She put her name forward in the contests for the vacancy left by John Key in 2016, and again by Bill English in 2018. Last year, her campaign centred squarely around the high-rotation slogan “strong and decisive”. An admirer of Margaret Thatcher, Collins’ pitch then and in the future stands in bold contrast to the weather-vane pragmatism of many in the political class.
When the Spinoff asked for her view on Jeremy Corbyn as he surged to the UK Labour leadership in 2015, Collins said that he might be deluded but “at least he stands for something. You know what you’re getting. UK Labour’s core voters want some reason to stand proudly for something. They need some reason to volunteer for the party, some reason to bother to vote.”
She added: “At its best, politics is the contest of ideas. It shouldn’t be about playing the game. It shouldn’t be about doing anything to win. It’s only by galvanising the base, by giving people a reason to care, that those more centrist will give the party a chance. If a party’s base doesn’t see why they’re bothering, then why should anyone else. No matter what side of politics people are, it’s always easiest to sell policies that you believe in.”
It seemed to me then, and still does now, as nothing less than a personal manifesto.
Polling by UMR after the resignation of Bill English suggested Collins had the greatest support as his preferred successor among both National voters and the wider public – and Bridges has so far failed to persuade them otherwise. Of course, neither the public, nor the National Party membership, get a vote in any leadership contest. That doesn’t mean they don’t have an influence, but it’s likely Collins would have work to do to filter that sentiment through to the caucus, who are sole arbiters of who gets to lead. That may take time.
In last year’s caucus vote, Collins didn’t even run Bridges close. But the pressure she’s put on Phil Twyford over KiwiBuild especially won’t have gone unnoticed. Why wouldn’t she fancy another go, thinking that her caucus colleagues might at last seize the strong, decisive moment? She could of course calculate that it’s better, especially in light of the way Jacinda Ardern inadvertently timed her 2017 run, to wait until close to the next election. She has done nothing visibly disloyal under Simon Bridges, and may be disinclined to wield a sword, preferring, say, to wait for Bridges to fall on his own. But one risk with that approach is that a year or later down the track, National might instead see its best bet at replicating Jacindamania in, say, Nikki Kaye, or a rejuvenated Paula Bennett, or Mark Mitchell, or someone else entirely.
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