Who will lead the National Party into the next election?
It wasn’t the “mind blowing” poll, delivering a massive 27 point swing towards Labour, leaving National at just over 30%, that landed the body blow. It was the final, excruciating instant when Bridges, asked about his post-lockdown haircut, admitted he had had a trim but there was “no dye”, a reference to the prime minister’s partner dying her hair.
It summed up much of Bridges’ last two months: largely innocuous, irrelevant, probably meant lightly, and entirely tone deaf. An off-the-cuff aside that created distraction, and opened him up to criticism, for no gain.
It was the point at which his colleagues would have reasonably wondered whether there was any way Bridges could lead the party back into election contention by September.
The question is not whether National will bounce back from 30.6% before the election. After the euphoria of a public health triumph over the first wave of Covid-19, the country is now headed for a painful economic contraction and unemployment at, best case scenario, a 30-year high. The question is whether that bounce will be aided or hindered by Bridges, and whether it can get the party close to victory.
The hair gaffe reinforced snowballing doubts: about whether he is simply incapable of talking to the electorate in a way that doesn’t harm National more than it helps. And, if the poll drop is symptomatic of a leader without the control or discipline over his message necessary to navigate a brief interview without incident, let alone a six-week presidential style campaign against Jacinda Ardern. Yesterday he called his deputy leader “Paula Benefit” in an interview, unbelievably for the second time.
The worry, in short, is that Bridges isn’t learning and can’t hold it together.
The second major concern for the National caucus is that poor polling has its own awful, inexorable momentum. If even after a bounce they think National has no chance of forming a government, centre right voters may desert the party for Act, to strengthen the opposition ideologically if not numerically, or throw a lifeline to Bridges’ sworn adversary Winston Peters, to act as a “handbrake” in government with Labour. The result is a vicious circle, if not an outright whirlpool.
In this case, a change of leadership seems the obvious solution. So the next question is, can a Todd Muller/Nikki Kaye leadership do better?
Bay of Plenty MP Muller is highly rated by party insiders and membership, dyed in the wool National, and well connected in rural New Zealand through his career at Zespri. He brokered the bipartisan development of the Zero Carbon Bill with James Shaw. He was “OK boomered” by Chloe Swarbrick.
He is also low profile to the point of anonymity, and essentially physically indistinguishable from around three or four of his colleagues, as a middle aged bald white man in a suit. He is not so much the “candidate from central casting”, as the candidate grown in a National party lab, seemingly as part of a batch.
Kaye is much better known. A formidable campaigner who beat the now-prime minister twice in two very tight races in Auckland Central, Kaye returned to politics after overcoming cancer, with a warmer and more relaxed manner to go with her legendary work ethic.
Kaye is an urban liberal, Muller a regional conservative, the National equivalent of a Dharma and Greg odd couple beloved by the party that has its roots in both conservative and liberal traditions.
There’s an argument that Muller’s relative invisibility is not the problem it first appears. Explaining his poor preferred PM ratings last year, Bridges trotted out the opposition leader standard line that the public was still getting to know him. As numerous Labour leaders, from David Cunliffe to Andrew Little, found out, it’s not always a good thing once they do.
National has perhaps the strongest brand in New Zealand politics. Rightly or wrongly, is historically trusted as a better economic manager than Labour. The team of five million will soon sharply divide into the haves and have nots of a sustained recession.
Labour still has significant and ongoing competence gaps in its ranks, best illustrated by disgraced health minister David Clark, and Phil Twyford, whose flagship $4 billion light rail project was quietly shelved during the lockdown.
Against the backdrop of this kind of incompetence – and the ongoing investigation into New Zealand First’s funding – Bridges battled his way into pole position as the next prime minister in January polls, despite miserable personal ratings. Muller would argue he could do the same, without the extreme antipathy Bridges seems to provoke in the electorate.
That antipathy towards Bridges is almost certainly unfair. He raised valid criticisms of the government’s health response that were in line with the concerns of frontline medical professionals and unions. He spoke out about the pressures of lockdown on small business. He worked constructively on major pieces of legislation, and chaired the Epidemic Response Committee well.
And there are plenty of reasons why Labour is surging, that have nothing to do with Bridges. Ardern addressed the nation daily. Leaders tend to get a bump at the height of a crisis, even leaders as cackhanded as Donald Trump. Ardern has proved herself not once but twice in crises. Bridges has never had that opportunity, and perhaps that’s one more unfairness to add to the pile.
But politics isn’t fair. The “dirty street fighter”, as Bridges’ wife dubbed him, knows that better than anyone. There is no appeals court to hear Bridges’ case, no third-umpire to correct the polls after reviewing the evidence. The public can be cruel in doling out political success, but the public cannot be wrong.
In contrast, Bridges’ MPs will lose much sleep over getting their call wrong. Much will turn on this week’s second poll: the One News Colmar Brunton poll completed after the Budget. It shouldn’t.
National has to put aside egos – including Muller’s and Bridges’ – and concentrate not on a few points in polls during a volatile time. Their question, for now at least, is simple: who can work a miracle.