After 14 years the former National leader has announced he’s quitting politics in the coming weeks. It leaves many people scratching their heads, Chris Luxon in a pickle, and the prospect of an intriguing byelection, writes Toby Manhire.
Haggard and cynical husks of humanity that we political observers are, the reflex collective thought at news Simon Bridges is suddenly quitting politics was: what’s the scandal and who has it? After all, the party he’s poured his life into is on firm footing for the first time in years. He’s forgoing an extremely good chance of becoming finance minister. The decision landed out of the blue, and, of all days, on the anniversary of the Christchurch attacks. And he’s triggering a byelection in Tauranga. The first question at his noon press conference – announced at 11.44am – summed it up neatly: “Mr Bridges, what’s going on here?”
But unlike, say, when Nick Smith exited stage right with the spectre of a damning scoop hanging over him (albeit one that never materialised), Bridges categorically rejected any suggestion that any skeleton was limbering up in the closet. “Absolutely not,” he said to the suggestion there might be a scandal afoot. “There just isn’t.” If there had been something like that brewing it would only have made him want to stay and fight, he said, and if the look on his face after Judith Collins attempted to snooker him out of his job last year over old yarns he’d spun around sex techniques is anything to go by, I believe it.
There may yet be something he’s not telling us. It could be a private, family matter. Or it could be something to do with the “significant commercial opportunities” and “maybe a media project or two”. Pressed on what those might be, he’d say only, “I like to keep things interesting.” Maybe he’s going to read the weather for Tova O’Brien.
Paradoxically, the fact that National is stronger than it has been for a long time, which owes a good bit to Bridges’ role alongside Chris Luxon, may have made him less inclined to stick around. Two years ago he was furious at his colleagues’ decision to roll him as leader amid the maelstrom of the early Covid response, and as Todd Muller and then Judith Collins plumbed the depths, his feelings he deserved another shot only steeled. Just hours before a caucus vote on the leadership in November last year, Bridges stood aside and supported Luxon. He must have at least in the back of his mind figured that if the former Air New Zealand CEO and political novice wasn’t up to it, his turn might come around again.
But all that is conjecture. In the absence of any obvious smoke, let alone fire, we should take him at his word. “My reasons that I give you are the reasons that are real,” he said today. “In the end, we all, in careers and lives, make significant decisions where we weigh the pros and cons … For me, at 45, 14 years in parliament, it’s a good time for National, it’s a good time for me, and it’s a good time for my family.” Love or loathe his policy positions, Bridges was never one to shirk debate, and in recent years especially evinced tremendous candour and good humour. New Zealand politics, I think, will miss him.
After his defenestration, Bridges enjoyed months out in the wilderness, wandering around in Roxy Music T-shirts patting yaks, reflecting on his life and career and writing it all down in National Identity (a book that is genuinely thoughtful and funny), which gave him a taste of a life in which your brain is not permanently tethered to politics. He describes that period in his book as a “personal renaissance”, in which he underwent a “remarkable rehabilitation from purgatory as a likeable, relatable human being”. If he fancies a bit more of that, who can blame him?
What it means for National
Is it really, as Bridges said of his decision today, “a good time for National”? Certainly it’s better than in an election year, but a could-be-worse time is not the same thing as a good time. “It’s never perfect,” Bridges conceded, “but I think National has momentum, as we saw in the poll last week, it’s got wind in its sails.”
There’s another way of looking at that, however. Yes, the National boat – and we know how the party loves a maritime metaphor – has finally got wind in its sails, but only after wallowing, becalmed in the doldrums for an age. It’s way too soon to mess with the navigation. In the days after he became leader, Luxon travelled to Tauranga to announce Bridges would be his finance guy. “Simon will play a central and critical role in our leadership team, and he and I will work closely together,” he said. “Simon will be an exceptional finance and infrastructure minister in the next National government come 2023.” At least part of that is now out of the question.
An absolutely critical source of the momentum that was reflected in National beating Labour in a 1News/Kantar poll for the first time since the pandemic began has been Bridges and Luxon hammering away as one about inflation and the cost of living. It is a truism of New Zealand politics that National is strongest when it’s strong on the economy. Now Grant Robertson, who has begun to give the impression of having been finance spokesperson forever, can add another name to the list he likes to enumerate in parliament of all the finance opponents he’s seen off.
If there is a silver lining for National, it is in moving forwards, insofar as Bridges is associated with enmities that plagued the pre-Luxon caucus. It’s a smudgy kind of silver, however. Todd Muller is still there after all. So is Judith Collins.
To keep momentum and forestall a return of internal squabbling and embarrassing leaking, to stop the public mind wandering back to the bad old days, Luxon needs to move fast to appoint a new finance spokesperson. The likeliest pick is Chris Bishop, which would entail, presumably, handing on the Covid response role to someone else. Soon he’d be dealing with a reshuffle, which was hardly his plan for the fourth month of leadership. And they’ll have to fill another role quick-smart, too: a candidate for the electorate of Tauranga.
A byelection in Tauranga
Very often a byelection is an opportunity to embarrass the party of government. But not this time. It’s true that Labour won the party vote in 2020, and Jan Tinetti did run Bridges within a couple of thousand votes. But 2020 was a freakish election. No one will expect a Labour candidate to win a byelection.
In truth, probably neither of the main parties relish the prospect. But byelections do have a way of playing political lightning rod. While much of the sting – and the political energy – of the occupation at parliament grounds will very likely have dissipated, along with the vaccine mandates, by the 2023 campaign, it seems inevitable that those forces will be felt in some fashion on the Tauranga hustings.
Tauranga Byelection sounds like a cocktail made by Winston Peters. After his big day out at the Wellington occupation, does he try to ride a wave of disaffected New Zealanders and their conspiracy theorist friends in the weeks to come? Another former National MP from Northland, Matt King, has confirmed he plans to set up a party and stand again for parliament. Billy TK? The Tamakis? And that’s just scratching the surface. We’re going to need a bigger yak.