Simon Bridges is probably the candidate the Labour-NZ First-Greens coalition least wanted as Leader of the Opposition.
They won’t say as much. He’ll be given a temporary show of respect and faint praise and then painted as a short-term bloke handed the hospital pass of a party on the wrong side of history. Another, entitled middle-aged man in a blue suit.
But the smarter strategists would have preferred anyone else.
For the Government, Judith Collins would have been a belligerent and combustible opponent but she would have been hard-pressed to find any love out there in the electorate. Steven Joyce would have been containable as a yesterday-man representing the hard-hearted edge of the former government. Mark Mitchell would have been a known unknown but a middleweight. Amy Adams would have given National purpose and brain power but could be painted as a throwback to the old-National farmer-lawyer-employer elite.
Bridges, elected by National’s caucus on the second ballot, has something about him that might defy political convention. He’s a boy who became a Young Nat before he became a man, was always old for his age, but who almost in spite of himself has become relatively relatable.
By rights, the leader who takes over after an election defeat at the end of nine years in power is a stop-gap choice who is bound to fail. Road kill for a Labour-led coalition on a first-term roll.
Bridges could yet be that unfortunate marsupial caught in the headlights and dispatched before the next poll, with a Collins or Mitchell left to pick up National’s pieces.
However his colleagues, who had choices, have seen in him the possibility of something better than that. They, and Labour, will know there was a reason why, all those years ago, TVNZ’s Breakfast Show invited him to be the National first-term MP up against Jacinda Ardern on its political panel. And why the all-seeing commentator Colin James asked as far back as 2012 whether Ardern and Bridges might be the ones to see a different path for the politics and New Zealand of the 2020s.
National MPs had two weeks to test those early votes of confidence in Bridges.They had four other contenders putting other cases, other paths. He has been able to persuade enough of them that he can deliver.
At 41, he is not National’s youngest new leader. For example, Bill English was under 40 when he took the role off Jenny Shipley. Bridges is not the most articulate, although he seems to have a better control of the language than his feted predecessor bar one, Sir John Key. He’s not the most forceful, or commanding, or charismatic, or right-wing or left-wing in National terms.
But like Key, and Ardern, he is someone many people could feel comfortable with sharing a chat, beer or barbecue. Indeed the barbecue he hosted for his caucus colleagues at his home during their Tauranga retreat three weeks ago must have let him work his magic.
Add that to his path of a simple Te Atatu North upbringing, law degrees at Auckland and Oxford Universities, a decade in prosecuting criminal cases, defenestration of NZ First leader Winston Peters in 2008 in the Tauranga seat, cabinet roles in transport, energy, communications and economic development and his smile and good looks.
There’ll be brighter, more intellectual or more ruthless MPs in National’s team and they can all do their thing, but they need someone who can sell National to an unconvinced public who gave Labour, NZ First and the Greens enough votes to cobble together National’s ouster.
Bridges’ first two performances as leader were above adequate and towards accomplished. With his wife Natalie and re-elected deputy leader Paula Bennett, he handled his press conference in Parliament’s Legislative Council chamber with assurance. It was hardly spruiked with the stardust of his Labour and Breakfast TV contemporary but he kept his messages clear and sounded inclusive on the futures of people like Joyce and Collins. If it was not Ardern’s supernova, there was a dimly luminous glow in the sky.
He made much of his westie history, and of that of Bennett beside him. (If she gets her confidence back, after being denied even a tilt at the leadership this time, Bennett could also give the government a hurry-up).There was a question about how he would manage political and home and family responsibilities and he saw that coming.
Most of all, from National’s viewpoint, he talked up its chances of an unlikely victory in 2020. Labour was “muddling along” and “treading water” and “all talk” and while Ardern was a good person with good intentions, behind her there just wasn’t a whole lot of calibre or policy or action.
It is not easy taking over and promising change when your party polled highest, at 44 percent, and had a sniff of retaining power but for Peters’ unpredictabilities. Bridges promised a modernised message while claiming National had many things right. A bit more emphasis on the environment, making its efforts for the regions (where on leaving office it had achieved growth in 13 of 15 areas) more explicit and proving that it is the party of economic management.
“I think we are the underdog,” Bridges said. “I think that’s true but we have a unique opportunity as a very strong opposition to make this a one term government. We are a strong opposition and they are a weak government. I think we can win, holding them to account and modernising our policy platform so we are exciting in 2020.”
About an hour later, in the House, Bridges got to ask his first question as leader to the Prime Minister. Weirdly, because the question would have been lodged before National knew the identity of its leader, he had to ask it in the name of Bill English and it was the generic : “Does the PM stand by all her policies?”
Ardern congratulated him on the new job and affirmed, yes, she does.
Bridges then took it to her, trying to show that Labour’s regional development fund announcement of $61m for Northland, Gisborne and the West Coast was a) just reheated National Government monies and b) directed to the Northland home base of Ardern’s deputy Peters and the relevant minister Shane Jones. He alleged a businessman advising on the regional fund projects had a history as a financial backer of the minister.
He repeated one question, on how much was National’s budgeted funding and how much was new, four times. It was strong, but it was risky. Ardern needed to muscle up and she did, hitting back saying Northland got most of the initial funding because National had totally neglected it for years and Bridges had promised but never delivered nine new bridges for the north.
For Bridges it was a debut as leader that was more about perfomance and caucus morale than extracting a government concession. His team was raucous.
He had the look of someone who is intent on enjoying the most unloved job in politics.