There is no obvious frontrunner to replace Simon Bridges as National Party leader – but horrific polling and doubt about his ability to turn things around may lead some MPs to conclude any change is better than none, Sam Sachdeva writes.

Throughout his stint atop the National Party, rumours of Simon Bridges’ demise have been greatly exaggerated – but it now seems the end may be truly nigh.

A crushing Newshub-Reid Research poll on Monday night, showing Labour riding high on 56.5 percent and National languishing at 30.6 percent in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, has sparked new life for the persistent leadership rumours that have dogged Bridges for some time.

With multiple media reports of a no-confidence vote at National’s caucus meeting next week, Tuesday May 26 looks set to be the date for a showdown within the party.

None of the names thrown around as potential replacements for Bridges – Todd Muller, Mark Mitchell and Judith Collins – has an overwhelming case to take the throne.

Muller, a former Zespri executive turned Bay of Plenty MP, has performed well on agriculture and climate issues but has almost no national profile to speak of and little time to remedy that.

Collins has no such problem: in fact, quite the opposite, with the caucus all too aware of her polarising personality and tendency to attract scandal.

Mitchell has perhaps been the least distinguished performer of the three in Opposition, having made little impact in his shadow justice portfolio to date.

A compromise candidate could be Bridges’ deputy and the party’s campaign chair Paula Bennett, although like Collins she carries some baggage from her time as a minister.

Releasing the handbrake

But the case for change may be less about a shiny new leader lifting National up, and more about stopping the incumbent from holding them down.

The party polling results were bad enough for Bridges, but the aspects of Newshub’s data related to the MP himself were perhaps even more damning.

At only 4.5 percent in the preferred Prime Minister stakes to Ardern’s 59 percent, the public appear well and truly turned off Bridges himself – a fact reinforced by a qualitative word association exercise.

‘Idiot’, ‘weak’, ‘useless’, ‘disappointing’ – all scathing and all in Bridges’ top 10, with ‘good’ and ‘average’ about as positive as it got (compare that with Ardern’s ‘amazing’, ‘compassionate’, and ‘empathetic’).

That tracks with the National leader’s almost impressive ability to say or do the wrong thing at almost every critical moment during the pandemic, from his criticism of the Government’s initial business support package to his widely panned denunciation of the decision to briefly extend the country’s time in lockdown.

Bridges has been a competent attack dog at points during the last parliamentary term, but the current circumstances demand a sense of optimism and gravitas which he does not seem comfortable summoning up. 

Of course, New Zealand’s politics do not operate under a presidential system, and National’s polling was relatively strong pre-Covid, despite its leader’s poor personal figures.

Nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of an involuntary career change, and the 16 MPs who would lose their jobs on Newshub’s polling have added incentive to agitate for a new approach.

But leadership has mattered to voters since time immemorial, and National MPs might reasonably wonder to what extent he is acting as a handbrake on their party numbers.

A change of leadership would not be without risk, with the possibility the party is seen as indulging in self-indulgent navel gazing at a time of national crisis.

A contested race could also highlight the factions within National that mostly stayed beneath the surface during its nine years in government, setting more liberal MPs against their conservative Christian colleagues.

But nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of an involuntary career change, and the 16 MPs who would lose their jobs on Newshub’s polling have added incentive to agitate for a new approach.

There could yet be salvation for Bridges, in the form of a One News-Colmar Brunton poll expected to be released within a week; the two TV outlets’ polls have diverged dramatically once before.

But it could also prove his damnation if it supports Newshub’s findings, solidifying the sense that Bridges and National are heading into a death spiral.

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

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