• Looking Over Your Shoulder

    One of the most heartening aspects of the national effort to defeat the coronavirus pandemic has been the support offered to the government by the National party Opposition. They have, on the whole, refrained from criticism of our Prime Minister, and their leader, Simon Bridges, has played a useful supporting role in chairing the ad hoc committee set up by Parliament to hold the government to account.

    But it was too good to last. Simon Bridges could not resist expressing his concern about Jacinda Ardern’s decision that the Level 4 lockdown should remain in place for another week. And his unhelpful posturing on the issue – choosing to champion the cause of “business” against “the people” – has inevitably brought about a backlash of opinion against him.

    Even lifelong National supporters have – in large numbers – expressed their dismay at this breaking of ranks, and commentators have been quick to speculate about the increased threat to his leadership – already precarious – that the backlash might pose.

    It is not my task to defend Simon Bridges, but I think the commentators have got it wrong. It is not that Bridges’ performance on this issue might threaten his leadership. The direction of causation runs the other way – it is the threat to his leadership that explains his breaking of ranks.

    Simon Bridges’ ill-judged criticism happened because he felt the pressure from his own party to “do something”, as Jacinda Ardern enjoyed headlines and plaudits aplenty. There is, after all, an election to take place later this year, and Bridges’ supporters were no doubt getting restive at their leader’s apparent inactivity. Poor Simon felt impelled to show that he was his own man and was prepared to take a position.

    But this was a misjudgment. His comments have, if anything, weakened his chances of holding on as National leader until the election. And he was wrong to worry too much about any threat to his leadership, at least in the here and now.

    We have seen immediately some of his potential challengers – the likes of Paula Bennett and Mark Michell – rush to express their support for him. But there is more than one game being played here.

    There will would-be successors to Simon Bridges who have already given away the next election. They scan a horizon that appears after the election has been lost. Their plan is to leave Simon in situ, to carry the can for the inevitable election loss – and, then, with the National party looking for a fresh start, their chance will come.

    The last thing they want to do is to roll their leader just now. To do so, would be to open the door to another challenger, one who could immediately offer the party experience and a safe pair of hands. The challenger who would be best placed, leading into an election, to take advantage of a pre-election change of leadership would be Judith Collins.

    So, Simon, you are safe for the time being and you might yet confound everybody by doing better than expected in the election. But, in the meantime, don’t worry too much about your potential challengers.

    You will show yourself to the best advantage – not by taking potshots at the government during a time of national crisis – but by acting responsibly in the national interest. And, if you feel you must look over your shoulder from time to time, be aware of the timing. Any short-term threat, before the election, will come from your senior colleague.

    But, after an election loss, Paula Bennett and Mark Mitchell – and probably others as well – won’t be able to get at you fast enough. Politics, as you know by now, is a cut-throat business.

    Bryan Gould
    27 April 2020