The National Party heads into its penultimate conference before the 2020 election with question marks still hanging over its leader. Can Simon Bridges win over a sceptical public, and what else must National do to defy the odds and eject Labour after one term?

Pot, meet kettle.

So went the reaction of some to Simon Bridges’ proclamation that new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, while impressive, was in possession of what he called “buffoon-like qualities”.

“It just means someone who sometimes gets a bit of marmalade on his chin, who sometimes doesn’t say quite the right things, whose personal life can be interesting,” Bridges helpfully if gratuitously added.

The National leader seems unworried about any egg on his own face as a result of the comments, gleefully sharing on social media a BBC article about Johnson’s own candid assessments of world leaders in the past.

But the incident, while minor, serves as a reminder that National MPs and delegates may be chewing over the question of leadership as well as their breakfast at the party’s annual conference in Christchurch this weekend.

To be fair, in recent months Bridges has managed to slow what at one point felt like an inexorable decline.

Conflicting public polls helped to muddy the waters around National’s downward trend, while the Budget “hack that wasn’t” provided an opportunity for him and his caucus to vent righteous indignation at the Government.

However, the resumption of hostilities after a three-week recess has provided a reminder that the coalition parties and others see Bridges as a weak spot.

Targeting Bridges

Both Labour and the Greens produced negative online ads attacking the National leader – even if the latter lost their nerve and pulled the video following a backlash from supporters – while the leak of internal polling used by Labour and showing Bridges’ abysmal favourability figures does not feel like an accident.

Of course, poor personal ratings do not preclude a leader from becoming Prime Minister – just ask Helen Clark – but with New Zealand elections becoming increasingly presidential in tone and Jacinda Ardern sucking up so much media oxygen, it is hard to see what Bridges can do to flick a switch with the electorate.

He is helped by the lack of immediately viable alternatives, bar the ever-lurking but polarising Judith Collins (although the recent willingness of National’s climate change spokesman Todd Muller, often named as a future Prime Minister in the making, to take a more moderate line on environmental issues than Bridges is intriguing to say the least).

National as a whole is in a tricky spot: far enough away from a majority that change is clearly needed, but close enough to Labour that any dramatic shake-up may seem unnecessarily risky.

Senior party figures have spoken about efforts over the last year to distill the wide range of philosophies across the caucus into the universal values that brought them all together.

Policy gaps need filling

Certainly, National has found economic and hip-pocket issues fertile ground for attacking the Government, with the electric vehicles feebate announcement the latest tax issue to be used as a cudgel by the party.

But for all the talk of the party becoming a policy factory in opposition, there are still major gaps on significant issues such as housing, and little to show other than a handful of “discussion documents” and public surveys.

It is not unusual for parties to keep their powder dry in hopes of making a bigger splash when voters are paying more attention, but given the unlikelihood of unseating a first-term government National MPs will need to show very soon they can be more than attack dogs.

It is an uphill battle to say the least, and win or lose Bridges may glean some insight from Johnson’s 2004 remarks after just one of his sackings.

“My friends, as I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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