National's sinking feeling after Jacinda Ardern springs engagement news

2019-05-03 23:54:50

OPINION: National leader Simon Bridges must be experiencing a familiar sinking feeling after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's engagement news.

He is getting far too used to being upstaged by Ardern.

National's hopes of this being a one-term government must surely be fading. Election-year wedding, anyone?

All is not lost yet, of course.

There might be a perception that Simon Bridges is a dead man walking.

But National is far from down and out yet. In fact, its still-bulging coffers are all you need to know about the state of the party.

Donations in the 12 months to December soared past $700,000, no doubt fuelled by worried business donors gearing up to fight employment law changes and a widely anticipated capital gains tax (even if it ultimately didn't happen). Labour's were a paltry $173,343 by comparison.

It's once the donations dry up that you know a leader's date with the guillotine is near.

It's a lot like the polls, which show National supporters are still largely keeping the faith, despite their obvious diffidence about Simon Bridges.

It's a conundrum for National MPs, who are painfully aware that Bridges is probably unelectable and almost certainly suffering from that fatal quality in politics, irrelevancy.

Even once-diehard Bridges backers are no longer willing to put money on his survival.

The dilemma is whether any of Bridges' MPs could do better (though Bridges has scored enough own goals that the scales have probably tipped on that calculation).

There might be a slow downward drift in the polls but, given where we are in the electoral cycle, the numbers for National are still surprisingly rosy.

And as anyone polishing their "future leader" credentials knows, the definition of poisoned chalice is the job of Opposition leader after your party has just served a long period in government. If you're truly ambitious to be prime minister, better to let Bridges be the willing fall guy this time around.

Fall guy is the role Phil Goff filled for Labour after its 2008 defeat. Goff bombed so badly he didn't even feature in the party's billboards, he was so much of a negative. But Labour made such a habit of changing leaders that people forget he survived an entire three-year term – he wasn't rolled till after the 2011 election.

Much like National now, Labour still saw a virtue in discipline and unity at that stage of the election cycle.

But there is always an exception to the rule. The name of Labour's exception was David Cunliffe. National's is called Judith Collins.

Collins' hero is the late Margaret Thatcher – a photo of the former British prime minister has pride of place on her bookcase.

Collins is a self-styled conviction politician, like her role model. Also like Thatcher, she has resilience in spades. Even their nicknames speak of the same steel. Britain had its Iron Lady, National has Crusher.

Collins has probably harboured dreams of leading the country since seeing her first grainy black-and-white images of Thatcher.

Her hand is always one of the first to go up at leadership contests and she assiduously cultivates the back benches, where the thwarted and unrequited ambitions of junior MPs thrive.

But her contemporaries have never wanted a bar of her.

So what's changed?

Everything and nothing. Collins still doesn't have the numbers to roll Bridges – if she did, he'd be gone by now.

But that's not to say she never will.

There is widespread acknowledgment that, if caucus decides to push the eject button on Bridges this side of the election, she is the most likely person to fill his seat.

That's quite a turnaround. It's also why there is such a concerted campaign from camp Collins right now.

Her opportunity may only come once.

Many of Collins' peers don't like her. Even fewer trust her.

So they would need a very compelling reason to change leaders – chiefly, the very real prospect of losing their own seat (as opposed to just another term in opposition).

That scenario can't be discounted.

Which is why anyone who thinks National MPs are too squeamish to roll Bridges doesn't have a very long memory.

Things might have been done in a more orderly fashion in recent times with (comparatively) good-natured and open leadership contests becoming the new norm.

But National's leadership contests of old were brutal, bloody and unsentimental.

And this is how they used to start.

There's a very old-fashioned term for the whispers currently undermining Bridges' leadership: white-anting. And the road that leads down is a well-worn one for National.

It's death by a thousand cuts; Bridges' leadership will eventually be so destabilised that the whispers will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So Collins to the rescue? Maybe. There is no question that the brand she sells – whether you call it strong, decisive, steely or uncompromising – has had something of a makeover in recent times. Being a strong woman in the #metoo era is a huge positive and she has ramped up the sass factor (her tweet congratulating Ardern on her engagement was pitch perfect). Telling America's gun lobby to "bugger off" doesn't hurt either.

But Collins is unequivocally ideological. She may never be irrelevant. But she will always be polarising.

A Collins National Party wouldn't skirt around Jacinda Ardern's niceness, or reasonableness. It would wage war on those qualities as a sign of weakness, not strength.

Which makes a long campaign with Collins at the helm high-risk. The nuclear option.

Are there alternatives?

Paula Bennett has never put her hat in the ring. But if the only option is Collins, she might be persuaded to run.

Rising stars like Mark Mitchell or Todd Muller would probably be counselled to sit this one out.

So National MPs won't want to be forced into a rushed decision. And the rules have changed anyway. Before Jacinda Ardern, it was believed that changing leaders at the 11th hour was always fatal.

But that is no longer a truism.

That gives the anti-Collins forces time as well, of course.

Which is why the whispering campaign against Bridges is unlikely to end any time soon.

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