Josh Van Veen
Victoria University Of Wellington – Te Herenga Waka
democracyproject.nz

Josh Van Veen is an Auckland-based writer and political analyst. He is currently the Chair of Progress New Zealand, an independent research and advocacy group established to promote democratic citizenship and social cohesion. A former member of NZ First, he worked as a parliamentary researcher to Winston Peters from 2011 to 2013. Van Veen has a Masters in Politics from the University of Auckland. His thesis examined class voting in Britain and New Zealand.

Simon Bridges is “older and wiser” but he still failed to read the room. Rather than accept the judgement of his colleagues last year, he set out to prove them wrong. Bridges rationalised his pursuit of the leadership as noble self-sacrifice. He didn’t convince many. Judith Collins stabbed him in the front before he could stab her in the back.

Last week, speculation about the National Party leadership reached fever-pitch with a Newshub/Reid Research poll that found more support for Bridges than Collins among the public. However, National voters were ambivalent. Bridges had a slight lead, with 41.8 percent to Collins’ 39.9 percent, but the difference was statistically insignificant. 

According to party insiders, the dramatic turn of events last Wednesday came after a confrontation between Bridges and Collins. Told she no longer had the confidence of caucus, Collins supposedly made a unilateral decision to demote Bridges and issue a statement regarding an incident from 2016. It proved to be her final act. A motion of no confidence was passed on Thursday morning and Collins was gone by lunchtime.

The fact that Bridges wasn’t nominated for the leadership is telling. Prior to last week it was rumoured that Bridges had a majority but wouldn’t challenge Collins until there was overwhelming support for his candidacy. That would have meant uniting the so-called ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ factions of National; an heroic assumption on his part. 

It is more likely that Bridges never had the numbers to begin with. The episode raises serious questions about his character and judgement. Collins’ rearguard action fatally undermined him. Over the weekend, Bridges was unable to muster the support he previously claimed to have. It turned out that Collins and her faction held the balance of power. 

Bridges and Collins both possess remarkable inner-strength. When endowed with conviction and resilience, a leader can overcome extreme political adversity. Given the chance in 2020, it is possible that Bridges would have defied expectations. The same can be said of Collins in 2023. Despite negative approval ratings and a hostile media, she remained a serious contender until Wednesday night.

It is easy to overlook the fact that support for National has recovered since the election. After receiving 25 per cent of the vote, National finishes 2021 with a public poll average of 27 per cent. More significantly, the gap between Labour/Greens and National/ACT has reduced from 25 percentage points to single digits. However, the National Party’s act of self-destruction last Thursday could very well reverse that trend.

Christopher Luxon may have the curriculum vitae for high office. But it remains to be seen if he has the skills to lead a weak and divided party. It is clear that some National MPs are too fixated on headlines and polling to endure the grind of Opposition. With the revolving door of leadership in motion, it is only a matter of time before they panic again. Bridges could be the one they turn to. However, the chances of him becoming prime minister are slim to none.

It is time for Bridges to end the vicious cycle that began with his deposition last year. He must finally let go of the leadership.

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Bridges Isn’t the One
Reproduced with permission

Reproduced with permission

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