History tells us that a lone rebel flinging accusations against their party leader has no political future. Jami-Lee Ross may have destroyed his career – is there any hope for Simon Bridges either? asks former Minister Peter Dunne.
Jami-Lee Ross’s bizarre political implosion has come as a general surprise, but such events are not unknown in New Zealand politics.
Over the years, there have been many situations, big and small, where individual MPs, for whatever reason, have taken on their party or party leader in a lone crusade.
Although there have been a few notable exceptions, they have usually failed, meeting the quick end of the lone rebel, and consequent relegation to general obscurity.
In the wake of Ross’s Twitter outburst, after he was “presumed” to be the person who leaked Simon Bridges’ travel expenses, commentators have been struggling to find a parallel situation.
There have been rebels before, but few have been as specific in their criticisms as Ross accusing his leader of encouraging illegal behaviour.
One parallel might be the example of the Labour rebel, John A Lee, and his notorious 1940 pamphlet, “Psychopathology in Politics”, which accused the dying Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage of suffering “mental unbalance and ill health”, describing him as “vain of mind and short of temper”, believing “that everyone who crosses his path has demoniac attributes.”
These inflammatory comments, penned at a time when Savage’s popularity was still high and most people had no notion he was ill, let alone dying, led to Lee’s expulsion from the Labour Party in 1940, and defeat in the next election in 1943.
Lee never returned to Parliament, despite further attempts, and remained a curious, irascible political eccentric, who popped up from time to time, until his death in 1982.
Normally, lone rebels are complaining about specific policy directions, or the leader’s effectiveness … suggesting the leader is mad or a crook goes way beyond that.
Another Labour MP, Richard Prebble, was dismissed from Cabinet in 1988 after describing Prime Minister David Lange as dictatorial and irrational, although his comments were part of a much wider revolt within the fourth Labour Government that eventually led to David Lange’s resignation in 1989, and the Government’s annihilation at the 1990 election.
In both cases, questioning a leader’s mental stability was a step too far.
Stating a leader is a “corrupt person”, “without principles or moral compass” are in the same league.
Normally, lone rebels are complaining about specific policy directions, or the leader’s effectiveness and resonance with the electorate. These can usually can usually be dealt with, and life left to carry on. But suggesting the leader is mad or a crook goes way beyond that.
Now, Jamie-Lee Ross is no John A Lee nor Richard Prebble, both of whom had substantial public profiles before their outbursts, which makes his actions that much more baffling.
Once he leaves politics, he is unlikely to be remembered for anything other than the events of this week. Although there had been rumours swirling about him for some time (nothing unusual here: most politicians are subject to rumours during their careers), there was nothing that seriously suggested the type of outburst Ross unleashed this week was pending.
While Ross seems set to become but a small footnote in our political history, wider questions remain to be resolved. Ross’s motivations are now just a curious side-issue, but National leader Bridges still needs to provide clear answers on at least a couple of points.
The most obvious of these is the allegation of corrupt electoral practice, and the documentary evidence Ross has now released in support of that allegation.
Any hint of election finance fraud can set off a chain of dramatic consequences, as John Banks found out so tragically a few years ago, so Bridges will need to deal with this issue, swiftly, clearly and honestly. Pushing it away as just the ramblings of an unbalanced person, as seems to be his tactic so far, will not work.
… any sense of optimism that the Ross boil has been lanced, should be kept heavily in check, at least for the time being.
Beyond that, there is the open question of whether Ross has further as yet unrevealed allegations to make and the credibility of those.
Of course, the National Party Caucus and wider party will strongly unite behind Bridges for the time being, to give the impression they are moving on from these recent events as quickly as possible. But colleagues will be watching closely how effectively he responds, including to the very specific and dramatic allegations Ross has now made against him, and whether they gain traction.
In his favour, Bridges now has the opportunity to cast the Caucus and the party in his mould, more so than before. While some suggest this could yet be the making of his leadership, in reality there are seldom any long-time winners from such situations.
Whatever else he has done, Ross has set a clock ticking.
Therefore, any sense of optimism that the Ross boil has been lanced, should be kept heavily in check, at least for the time being.
If, over the next few months, National takes a hit in the polls, or Bridges is not seen to have achieved any greater cut through with the public, or the coalition Government starts to get its act together and act more like a cohesive government than a disconnected trio, then there will be those who will question whether the leak inquiry was really the best idea after all, and the allegations raised by Ross in defence of his actions will surface again.
This time, though, it will be other MPs, or frustrated party supporters, operating not through media leaks, but more likely furtive discussions at party meetings and gatherings, and all pondering the same question, “can we win with Simon?”.
That could prove extremely corrosive and debilitating, especially in the lead-up to the next election. Bridges’ new opportunity is short-lived and puts more pressure on him to perform.
While any good Jamie-Lee Ross has done in his public life will now be interred with his political bones, the reverberations of his conduct will linger long after he has gone.