Even a unanimous vote by the National caucus to give the rebel MP the boot may not be enough to save the leader, writes Toby Manhire
As he isn’t shy to remind us, Winston Peters rightly predicted Brexit and rightly predicted President Trump. He probably predicted the kayak octoslap and Lotto history being made by a woman from the North Shore. And his favourite augury of recent months – that Simon Bridges will not contest the next election as leader of the National Party – is looking likelier and likelier by the moment.
This morning National Party MPs gather at the Beehive to decide whether to expel Jami-Lee Ross from their caucus. Pending an unlikely follow-through on the threats the Botany MP issued on Twitter yesterday about secret and incriminating recordings of the National leader, it will almost certainly be game over for him. Bridges’ best case scenario is a swift, decisive and unanimous (JLR excepted) defenestration. But what then for the leader?
Two of New Zealand’s busiest political pundits, Michelle Boag and Bryce Edwards, suggested on RNZ this morning that Bridges would emerge from all of this stronger. That’s a bizarre argument. Even should everything go as well for him today as possible, the question is not whether he will be left stronger but the extent to which his grip on the leadership is weakened.
For more than a decade, the National parliamentary party has evinced, day after day, a formidable discipline. Any bubbles of discontent – the Aaron Gilmours and Todd Barclays of yore – have been rapidly flattened. In the days after Bill English announced he was chucking it in, there were a few teasing moments as party factions and backbiting materialised in the press. But even that was extinguished pretty quickly.
This is another order altogether. And it isn’t over. Jami-Lee Ross would have us believe that he has evidence on unlawful plotting over donations on the part of Bridges – something vehemently denied by the leader. As a former front-bencher and party whip, he will be able to cause a good bit of damage if he is determined to go out guns blazing – and god knows they were blazing away in yesterday’s tweets.
There remains open the question of the “other behaviour” by Ross that Bridges raised in his press conference yesterday. Bridges also invited media to “draw your own conclusions” about whether there were any other caucus colleagues confederate with Ross. Even a unanimous show of hands today can’t eradicate suspicion of a rebel faction.
And don’t forget that the PWC report commissioned by Bridges is not quite a lay down misère. The metadata it relies upon to point the finger at Ross concerns calls and texts with an RNZ journalist and a police commander, but not the content of any of those. Ross says the journalist – it isn’t Tova O’Brien, but a reporter involved in the reporting of the follow-up story about the supposed leaker asking for the original inquiry to be shut down in the cause of their mental health – is a friend. The report offers, implicitly as supporting evidence, exchanges between Bridges and the speaker’s office around the time that the Trevor Mallard opted to end his inquiry. Mallard has since pointed out that he had been trying to get in touch with Ross believing him to be overseeing the National inquiry – it is not supporting evidence at all.
As the report itself states, ” This evidence is not conclusive.”
Most critically, this rare exhalation of internal division is bound to damage National in the polls. The only thing more awe-inspiring than the National Party’s consistent discipline is the National Party’s consistent polling. Could it be, just possibly, that they’re linked? And were National to fall by two or three or four points or more in the next published polling, National MPs in marginal seats or the grey area of the list will start thinking about their electability. And there is no greater guarantor of instability in a caucus than its members fretting about losing their jobs. And once all that starts, it’s hard to stop. Just ask Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little.
Bridges hasn’t done anything like a bad job. Yes, the decision to demand, and push on with, an inquiry on the relatively harmless leak of some travel expenses was a bad call – but it’s one that hindsight has mutated into a far graver mistake that it really was. But neither has he done anything brilliant. Cruelly, his greatest success this term was probably right at the start, when he snookered Labour on a parliamentary procedure matter. Here’s a photo of that moment. Have a look at who is in his ear.
There is at least one compelling argument in favour of Bridges hanging on to the job, at least in the short term. It has become axiomatic that opposition leader is the shittest job in politics. The Jacinda Ardern example suggests that the best length of time to be the leader of the opposition is no time at all. If you were hoping to topple Bridges as leader of the National Party, would you really do it now?
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.