|Last week’s shock 1News opinion poll was the final indication, if Bridges needed it, that his chances of eventually taking back the leadership and becoming PM were slim to none. Any feeling that it was worth waiting around to see if Luxon might stumble over the next couple of years could be put to bed.
Bridges says he had been thinking of departing for some time, beginning with the coup against him prior to the 2020 election, when Todd Muller was installed with the help of Chris Bishop and Nicola Willis.
Despite that setback, Bridges managed to stay energised and clearly wanted to regain the top position. After all, prior to Covid hitting, National was on 46 per cent in the polls in an election year and he had been on track to become New Zealand’s first Māori prime minister.
While in the political wilderness after the coup, Bridges went through a remarkable renaissance, publishing a well-received and thoughtful book, growing his hair, and becoming widely described as rather “Zen”. And although he was sanguine enough about future ambitions to run for leader again just a few months ago, he says he was also mulling a departure from politics.
With Luxon as leader, Bridges played a key role in helping rebalance the party and unify the factions. He returned to form as a frontbench finance spokesperson, being a real threat to Grant Robertson, and more recently pushing a very successful cost of living campaign.
This means that Bridges departs on something of a high. Much like John Key, he goes out when people aren’t expecting it. And, as with Key, many have been looking for the “real” reason for his departure. But a consensus has quickly developed that there is no scandal behind Bridges’ resignation. His explanation can be taken at face value. The attraction of spending more time with his family and developing a new (un-announced) career in Auckland after years of bruising and turbulent times in the bear pit of the National caucus will ring true for most.
What Bridges’ departure says about problems in National
The personal and positive explanations that Bridges has given for his departure shouldn’t blind us from the push factors. He’s not spilling the beans about them at the moment, wanting his departure to be full of grace and positivity.
There is the problem of Jami-Lee Ross’ upcoming trial scheduled for July. Even if there are no more damaging revelations about Bridges’ involvement in the alleged illegal donations, having what has already been revealed dragged into public view again will not be helpful to either Bridges or National, especially if he was still a sitting National MP.
And there are clearly internal political factors at play. Bridges is departing in defeat, and leaving behind a National caucus that is said to be still frustrating him.
He has had to endure working closely with an inner circle including Christopher Bishop and Nicola Willis, who are leaders of National’s liberal faction and were behind the ill-fated Todd Muller leadership coup. He is said to feel betrayed by them and that relationship was never going to recover.
Insiders say that as the leader of the conservative faction in National, Bridges has felt marginalised under the new leadership.
Richard Harman writes today: “That he has decided to go has raised questions among some in the caucus about whether conservatives like him are slowly being squeezed out of decision making. There are also suggestions that he was frustrated with the way things were being run under Luxon, even that he was unhappy with some staff appointments.”
As to who is likely to take over as essentially the conservative faction leader, Harman points to the prospect of Shane Reti (promoted today to number four in the National hierarcy) and Louise Upston moving further into the inner circle of the leadership. This might go some way to helping find greater equilibrium in National’s traditional liberal-conservative ideological balancing act.
At the moment, the liberals dominate, which means National is light on appealing to more conservative voters. Stuff political editor Luke Malpass put it this way: “Bridges was cut from more conservative and confrontational cloth than Luxon. He was not worried about going after some culture wars issues and be tough on crime and gangs and drugs. He represented part of National’s caucus, and an important wider constituency of the party. Without him in that position, someone else will have to step up.”
The big hole Bridges leaves in National
Bridges’ departure also leaves National with plenty of other problems. Losing any high-calibre frontbench politician is unfortunate, but particularly when the caucus is so lacking in experience. With a newbie like Luxon at the helm, it was highly advantageous to have the experienced Bridges there beside him.
National has lost the more mongrel and aggressive way that Bridges took the fight to Labour, but also his intellectualism – he had developed a reputation as one of the more thoughtful contributors to policy development and direction.
Overall, having Bridges depart just when National is climbing fast in the polls is an unfortunate setback in its campaign to return to power next year. As Harman writes today, “Resigning after just over three months of the new leadership team is hardly a vote of confidence.” And the continuity of the caucus with the John Key era also evaporates – Bridges was the last frontbencher standing from National’s last turn at the helm (with Judith Collins and Gerry Brownlee now much further down the rankings).
Bridges was also a key part of his party’s claim to diversity, and this loss could make National even more vulnerable to criticism on this front. Although, as Bridges explained in his recent book, he was often disparaged by liberals for not being “Māori enough”. However, his replacement as Finance spokesperson is a woman, and surely Luxon and the caucus will demand that the new candidate for Tauranga isn’t a white male.
National reshuffle and finance role
The appointment of Nicola Willis as Finance spokesperson is a smart choice by Luxon. Not only does he have strong trust in the deputy leader, respect for her is growing in the caucus. There might be some questions about her qualifications, but her previous role on the Finance and Expenditure select committee was well regarded. National will also stress her time in the corporate world, working for Fonterra.
Of course, Willis has also excelled in the Housing portfolio. As Thomas Coughlan writes today, “she helped to detoxify housing for National to the point where a recent Ipsos poll had National ahead of Labour when it comes to the party most backed to address the housing crisis.”
What’s more, she is a moderate on economics, and not someone who will scare swing voters. Instead, she was a protégé of both Bill English and John Key. And unlike Chris Bishop, who was the favourite amongst many commentators for the Finance role, she doesn’t have a background in lobbying and the tobacco industry – something that is still a blackmark for this otherwise heavy-hitting performer.
By-election fights and outcomes
Perhaps the biggest criticism to be made of Bridges’ decision to depart is that he is leaving halfway through the Parliamentary term, after having just committed 18 months ago to serving a full term. Retiring politicians normally agree to at least serve out their time. In this case, Bridges causes an expensive by-election, estimated by the Electoral Commission to cost about $1m, to say nothing of the extra Covid-related campaign costs, and the expense for campaigning political parties.
Nonetheless it will be a chance for National to renew itself, bringing in fresh talent and perhaps injecting greater diversity into its caucus. The most likely candidate for the role is Rotorua Lakes District Councillor Tania Tapsell, who is a rising star in the party (her great uncle is former Speaker of the House and Labour MP Sir Peter Tapsell). She stood for National at the last election in the East Coast electorate.
Obviously New Zealand First might bite at the chance of a by-election in Winston Peters’ old electorate, where traditional conservative voters still dominate, especially with a very high proportion of superannuants.
Peters may hope for another upset like he caused when he won the Northland seat off National in 2015. This time around, such a feat is highly unlikely, but it would be a good chance for the populist party to rail against Labour’s Three Waters and iwi co-governance model, as well as the decision to deny the Tauranga City Council the right to have an election this year. On the other hand, the by-election is likely to occur just when New Zealand First is set to be in the headlines with their own High Court trial about party donations.
A loss by National in Tauranga is unlikely. But we live in strange, polarised, unsettled times – especially as evidenced by the recent parliamentary protests. And by-elections occasionally throw up surprise results. Bridges’ majority was slashed from 11,252 in 2017 to just 1,856 in 2020, so if Peters can capture a reasonable chunk of the anti-government vote it could get very interesting. If Peters was to stand and actually win, after last losing there to Bridges in 2011, it would certainly be an ironic historical conclusion to Bridges’ career.