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Dunne Speaks: Bridges' Return?

As political proclamations go, it was neither the boldest nor the most inspiring, but, in the circumstances, probably one of the more realistic of recent times. Judith Collins’ assertion that she would be still leader of the National Party next year is probably true as far as it goes, but it also acknowledges implicitly that she is likely to face a challenge at that time.

Since she took the leadership in mid-2020 because she was the only candidate still standing after the disastrous Todd Muller interlude, she has effectively been on borrowed time. After all, no-one expected National to come within a bull’s roar of winning Labour’s 2020 Covid19 election. The absolute best Collins could have hoped for was to staunch the gaping wound and limit National’s losses. In the event she could not do so – although to be fair she tried her best (besting the Prime Minister in at least two of the three television debates) but she was not helped by the various scandals that emerged at the time about other National MPs – and ended up as the leader who led National to one of its most ignominious defeats.

But even if she had succeeded and done better, her survival as leader was unlikely. National has always been more ruthless in dealing with leaders who lose elections than Labour. Walter Nash, Norman Kirk, and Bill Rowling lost more elections for Labour than they ever won, and Mike Moore was given another chance after Labour’s 1990 annihilation – but Jim Bolger is the only National leader since the days of Holyoake to be given a second chance immediately after losing an election. So, the prospect of Judith Collins retaining the National Party leadership on a long-term basis has always seemed fanciful.

Much has been made of National’s woeful performance in Opposition as a reason for getting rid of Collins, although that is probably overstated. National has certainly bungled many opportunities since the election to score heavily against Labour, but in the end that may not count for all that much. There would have been few Oppositions as weak or inept as Labour between 2008 and 2017, yet it was still able to claim power, albeit in unusual circumstances, after the 2017 election. The old maxim, “Oppositions do not win elections, governments lose them” remains relevant.

For these reasons, only two questions remain about the National Party leadership – when will the coup occur, and who the next leader will be. The first question is probably harder to answer than the second.

At this point, the first quarter of next year seems the most likely time. Within that, the usual Caucus retreat in early February would be the obvious moment. That would enable the Party to begin the new Parliamentary year with the new leadership in place and give the new leader time to both define their style and build the team around them. It would also allow about 20 months before the 2023 election to put together the policy platform and select the best candidates to put National in the strongest position it could be to contest that election.

If no move is made in February, the Party cannot afford to let things drift on much beyond Easter next year, for practical reasons. They are less to do with voter appeal than they are with candidate selection and fundraising. Good prospective candidates are unlikely to come forward if there are still doubts about the leadership and National looks set for another drubbing. The same applies to potential donors who will be unwilling to make significant donations to another campaign like that of 2020.

The question of who the new leader will be is less unclear. Simon Bridges is the obvious choice. He is untainted by having led National to an election defeat – he was deposed several months before the last election – and more importantly, has assiduously reinvented himself as a kinder, gentler figure. In so doing, he has followed the tried-and-true path of political comeback. First, came the cultivation of a more laid-back and relaxed public image – in his case, slightly longer and more unruly hair, more casual clothing to suggest a more carefree image. Then there was the gentle self-mocking on television chat and game shows, carefully showing a softer and more humorous side than the brash politician he came across as previously. There was also the mandatory book, so overtly not about politics, yet covertly setting out the new Bridges’ message. And all the while, accompanied by the constant denials of ever wanting or intending to seek the party leadership again.

While Bridges’ return would be unusual in the context of New Zealand politics, it is not without precedent – Sir Bill English came back to the National Party leadership in 2016, thirteen years after being deposed, although the circumstances were vastly different. A more interesting parallel comes from across the Tasman. John Howard was an abrasive and brash Treasurer under Malcolm Fraser. Howard subsequently became leader of the Liberal
Party but was dropped in 1989 because he was seen as no match for then Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke. Once Hawke had departed the scene (and the Liberal Party had been through three more leaders and two additional election defeats) a more mellow Howard was restored as party leader, going on to win four consecutive elections and become Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister since the dominance of Sir Robert Menzies from the 1940s to the 1960s.

There is still a mighty long way to go before National can even dare to dream of such a heady future. It cannot happen until National closes the door on its last two disastrous years. Changing the leader is but the first step. More important, will be the development of a coherent policy programme and message to the electorate at large, which still seems as far away as ever. Yet that will be the difference between National looking like a genuine contender at the next election and just another also-ran the way it does at present.

Changing the leader will not of itself change that – but it will put the party in a position where it can look forward once more. Simon Bridges will therefore need to show he really has risen above the failings of his previous leadership by setting out clearly and persuasively National’s plan for the country’s future. He will not get a third chance.

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