National only has itself to blame for the pickle it is in right now.
The pickle is deciding the right time to roll Simon Bridges. He’s not the right guy for the job. Never was.
It’s been obvious from the start. He’s languished in the polls, never scoring more than 12 per cent in the preferred PM rankings. He’s been the subject of persistent coup rumours. He’s regularly made a hash of things, most recently that Facebook post.
In truth, the Facebook post wasn’t offensive. Bridges only levelled the same criticism others already had. Same with his criticism of the Government including beneficiaries in its initial Covid assistance package. Others were saying the same thing. It was valid for the Opposition to raise it. Bridges’ problem isn’t what he says, it’s how he says it. It’s the intensity and the tone. He’s like someone talking too loudly with headphones on. His words might make sense but they need to drop a few levels. The fact it isn’t obvious to him that he needs to balance criticism with reading the room means he doesn’t get the basics of the job.
The appeal of rolling Bridges is clearly growing in the National caucus. Those rumours didn’t come from nowhere. Someone put them out there to destabilise Bridges and I’d guess it’s the very same group who’ve done it at least twice before. This time around, the difference is that other members of the caucus aren’t shutting the rumours down completely. The message is there’s no coup right now, but Bridges isn’t doing well enough.
So what does the National caucus do?
They could roll Bridges now and install someone else, but who? Judith Collins is an option. There’s some public support but her colleagues don’t trust her. Mark Mitchell has probably blown his chance. He’s extremely affable but hasn’t managed to make much of a mark with his regular media appearances. Todd Muller is highly regarded but no one outside of the beltway really knows who he is. All of the options are high risk this close to an election.
Then there’s the question of the brand damage a coup would do. National’s made a point of talking up its discipline and stability. A coup screams the opposite, especially this close to an election.
The alternative is to hold firm. It’s a continuation of the conservative strategy that has left National in the pickle it’s in right now. The party has hoped that voters would grow so irritated by the Coalition Government they would hold their noses and return National to power despite its unpopular leader. They took hope from the party’s consistently high polling.
That strategy has just become a lot harder to have faith in. The party’s now polling at least as low as 35 per cent in the UMR private polling and Brand Jacinda is at a peak. In a period where the PM is defending the incompetence of her government, it’s possible to picture voters choosing Bridges over her if you squeeze your eyes tightly enough. But at a time when the Prime Minister is doing an amazing job of communicating, of taking the public with her and of drawing international praise, it’s an impossibility to imagine voters choosing Bridges over Ardern, even if he leads the party of their choice.
Yes, these times of flux won’t last. And yes, the Government will eventually have to answer for all the damage to the economy that it has unnecessarily inflicted with a too-restrictive lockdown. The lockdown might be justified, but total economic shut down and the length of it will come under scrutiny. Most likely National will bounce back and most likely voters will again believe the narrative that it is the party best suited to fixing a shattered economy.
Trouble is, voters might believe the decades-old narrative that National’s the right party, but can they look past the wrong leader? The believability of this week’s rumours says no.
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