While Christopher Luxon may be ahead of him in the race to lead National, Simon Bridges’ experience and ideological inclinations, with the changed political climate since he was last in the job, add to the case for his restoration, Liam Hehir writes

Botany MP Christopher Luxon seems every inch the front-runner in National’s leadership contest. He had the most support at the indecisive party caucus meeting late last week. He has also positioned himself as a future leader and, crucially for any modern politician, has a following in the media.  

According to reports, Sir John Key has been ringing around on Luxon’s behalf (Key has denied proactively making calls, but says he has shared his views with MPs who have asked for them). Luxon has also impressed a number of National MPs with his vision for the party and is said to have a plan of sorts for getting things going again. Rank and file members who have heard him speak also speak very highly of him. 

For all that, however, the prospect of restoring former leader Simon Bridges to the leadership this week has become a very real one. It is, by all accounts, going to be a very close run thing. 

The Tauranga MP did not offer himself up for the leadership role in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of Judith Collins on Thursday. The reports are that Luxon did, with Whangaparaoa MP and perennial leadership hopeful Mark Mitchell. Neither was able to close the deal and caucus adjourned for a potentially messy period of reflection and, no doubt, intense lobbying. 

Had Luxon been bold, he might have delivered an ultimatum: elect me now or not at all. Had he done this then he probably would have emerged from the meeting last week the Leader of the Opposition with a strong mandate to clean house. But for whatever reason that did not happen. 

It may have been a simple matter of timing. Luxon is clearly ambitious, but remains new to the world of elected politics. He may have hesitated. In any event, he did not seem to press his advantage and that left an opening for Simon Bridges. 

And there would, in fact, be a certain logic to a restoration for the member for Tauranga. 

What does not kill us… 

Bridges is a seasoned and experienced politician. Not all of his experiences have been enjoyable ones. 

Bridges argues that he has learned the right lessons from the events that came before his fall. He has repeatedly pointed in his media appearances to being older and wiser. In other words, he is selling the rough time he had last year as a strength and not a weakness. 

The political climate is also much better for Bridges now than it was last year. The sudden onset of the Covid threat hit him for six and he never really recovered. Before the country going into emergency mode, polling had him becoming Prime Minister in 2020.  

However, his personal style of opposition was unsuited to mood of the country in the early days of Covid-19. He was seen as too negative when we all felt so collectively threatened. Kiwis wanted to be able to put their trust in the official response to Covid and were willing to cut it more slack than Bridges was willing to allow.

Those conditions no longer prevail. Support for the Government has been weakened since the election and continues to soften. Where Ardern and her ministers once received unending acclaim for navigating unexpected shocks, it is now the subject of regular griping as Covid becomes part of the background noise of our lives. 

Where Bridges’ criticisms cut across the grain last year, they’re likely to be much more in line with the electorate in the months to come. 

Giving Bridges another go may help to end the culture of recriminations over the disastrous coup against him last year. However well-intentioned the plotters may have been, the way things happened created a lasting sense of distrust.

There is also the question of ideological balance.  

The National Party is a coalition of liberals and conservatives, but as a result of the 2020 wipeout its disposition has moved rightwards through the loss of marginal seats. That calls for a leader who is inclined towards conservatism while having a good understanding and appreciation for the wider cultural milieu; a cultural milieu which is not always friendly to conservative causes. 

This has always been one of Bridges’ strengths and remains a key point in his favour today.  

Lastly, giving Bridges another go may help to end the culture of recriminations over the disastrous coup against him last year. However well-intentioned the plotters may have been, the way things happened created a lasting sense of distrust. The fact that Todd Muller did not work out means that everybody involved feels justified in blaming everybody else for the catastrophe that followed.  

If Bridges gets a mulligan and National steadily gains support then he will have been vindicated. If he wins the leadership and fails to make headway? At least it will be certain for both Bridges and his supporters that he has reached the end of the line.  

In either case everybody can move on from last year and that is something the National Party really, really needs to do. 

Learning from the Australian Lazarus 

If there is a precedent for all this, then it is Australia’s John Howard becoming leader of the opposition in 1985 before leading the Liberal Party to defeat in 1987. He famously made almost every mistake in the book before being crushed in a coup by deputy leader Andrew Peacock. His career was assumed to be dead in the water. 

He eventually regained the leadership. Learning from his mistakes, Howard proved a successful Prime Minister winning four general elections. Quite the turnaround for someone whose unpopularity once had a major news magazine printing a cover asking why he was even bothering. 

No matter what happens, Luxon and Bridges are going to have to deal with one another. The ideal outcome would be a brokered leadership arrangement similar to the one struck by John Key and Bill English in 2006. That laid the foundation for 11 years of relative harmony and success and it is the other precedent those who wish National well should bear in mind.   

There is another way, of course. That it is to continue along the path the party travelled since Bill English announced his retirement. It is the way of intrigue and infighting and leaking.  

Up to them. 

*This article was originally published on BlueReview.co.nz and is reproduced with permission.

Liam Hehir is a writer and newspaper columnist from the rural Manawatu and a former National Party activist.

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