PHOTO: GETTY

Polls reveal a steep task for Simon Bridges, but could yet prove a godsend

The National leader will not be happy with just 9% picking him as preferred by PM in a new poll, especially with Judith Collins storming into the scene. But the bigger story is the mire in which Winston Peters finds his party. 

A funny old morning for Simon Bridges. The party you lead has just come out top in a political poll, hitting 45%, within reach, even, of an absolutely majority – a minor miracle in the world of MMP. The Newshub/Reid Research result – published three months to the day since Bridges became National Party leader – should surely be a personal triumph.

Instead, however, Bridges woke to a blizzard of speculation about his performance as leader. The poll put him on 9% in the preferred prime minister stakes, well behind Jacinda Ardern’s 40%, prompting Newshub to lead with “Simon Bridges failing to connect with voters” and “some seriously bad news for Simon Bridges”. As others duly noted, this was “the lowest rating for any National leader over the past 10 years of Reid polling”.

This evening’s 1 News /Colmar Brunton poll was almost an exact match in terms of the top two parties, putting National on 45% and Labour on 43%, but a little brighter for National’s leader, giving him 12%. Brighter, but still showing the distance he has to travel to get close to Ardern, preferred PM of 41%.

Newshub

Newshub

But is even 9% really that bad? The only other National leaders across the last 10 years were of course John Key and Bill English, both of whom enjoyed a far higher profile than Bridges. And the preferred prime minister question, let’s face it, amounts largely to, “Can you remember the name of the leader of the party you like?”, especially at a moment when party politics are hardly at the forefront of most minds.

As Bridges continues a tour of the country in which he is quite literally trying to introduce himself to people, he can take some solace in a TV3 poll from February 2009. Phil Goff was three months in as leader of a party which had lost government after three terms. His score then as preferred PM: 3.7%. John Key: 52%. (Goff had climbed up to 9% by April.)

The picture of Bridges under pressure is compounded, and made more entertaining, with the re-emergence of Judith Collins. Those surveyed are not given a list of names to choose from, so it does amount to something that Collins made an appearance in last night’s poll at 3.7%, prompting, for example, Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking to conclude that Collins is now “set to dominate the polls”.

Perennially caricatured as prowling behind a shrubbery with a dagger, or perhaps a hydraulic automobile compacter, Collins is relishing her role as Phil Twyford’s antagonist, whether it’s in exposing trivial aeroplane telephone sins, or the much more serious task of holding him to account on some very ambitious plans to build homes. She appeared on the Newshub clip about the poll making all the appropriately loyal and collegiate remarks, while her dazzling smile read from an altogether different script.

There is no leadership challenge in the wind, but as nine years of Labour illustrated, it is easy for even the vaguest whiff of a challenge to become the overarching narrative of an opposition party. Were National to take a substantial hit in the polls, or, god forbid, to see their candidate Dan Bidois upset by Shanan Halbert in the Northcote byelection a fortnight from now, then the leadership question will cling to Bridges like a bad smell.

TVNZ

TVNZ

The deeper predicament for the National Party, underscored by both of these polls, is their loneliness. In an electoral system designed with multi-party government in mind, all National can rely on is ACT, and that one-man party is about as useful a political dance partner as he is, well, a dance partner. National needs a political outrigger, and it needs one fairly urgently. Whether that comes in the form of an overhauled and renamed ACT or a Tory provincial voice or a Christian-values Conservative Party reborn – perhaps by way of a few sitting MPs splintering off – or even a new Green-Blue grouping (the prospects of the existing Greens seriously entertaining a National partnership in the foreseeable future are close to nil), something needs to give.

Or what about NZ First? It’s hard to imagine they would hook up with National next time round, but at the current rate they won’t be around to do any kind of coronation. Indeed the overwhelming headline out of these polls, really, is Peters’ party’s result. At this point a year ago, NZ First was salivating at the prospect of an election tally around 10%. Less than a year into coalition, they’re on 2.4% (1 News is less painful, at 4%). And it’s not as though they haven’t been working hard to defy the gravity of MMP over the last couple of decades, which drags support parties under the threshold (the Greens in these latest polls, too, are only just above water). But it turns out that Winston Peters’ suave diplomacy isn’t what NZ First voters were looking for. Shane Jones’ Regional Hero routine? All hat and no cattle.

That may be the best news line for for National to cling to. New Zealand First will be more desperate than ever to make headlines, to somehow make its tried and trusted oppositional politics work from the seat of government. And however much NZ First MPs might insist the polls are an ass, that 2.4% will be scored on their retinas. More than ever, the party caucus will be looking for opportunities to play to the base.

And there is no opportunity more inviting than, say, six or more weeks as maternity-cover boss. Will Winston do a doughnut or two when Jacinda Ardern chucks him the keys to the country in a few weeks? Imagine, for example, a surprise policy announcement on immigration. Imagine acting PM Peters demonstratively berating a Labour or Green minister for perceived misbehaviour. Who would bet against PM Peters going a little bit rogue? His backbenchers will be praying for something of that. But not as much as Bridges will.

This post was updated to include reference to Monday evening’s TVNZ poll.


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