Loss of Simon Bridges ‘a colossal blow’ to National Party, says Yardley


National’s former Finance spokesman Simon Bridges and leader Chris Luxon have parted ways.

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff

National’s former Finance spokesman Simon Bridges and leader Chris Luxon have parted ways.

OPINION: Frenetic, dramatic and fascinating. I’m struggling to recall the last time we have seen such hyper-reactive political intensity quite like the past fortnight.

Beware the Ides of March, indeed.

The heightened state of a government thrust into sustained scramble mode, arguably started with the National Party leader’s State of the Nation speech. Back in early March, despite the unprecedented surge in reported daily cases of Omicron and the nation yet to reach the crest of the wave, Christopher Luxon’s keystone speech barely even mentioned the pandemic. It was an audacious and strategic masterstroke, allowing National to assert fresh control of the political narrative.

The Opposition leader courted the nation’s attention by turning his tanks on the cost of living crisis, pledging tax relief from bracket creep and laying into the government’s record on wasteful spending and rising welfarism.

National’s self-confidence that it was in tune with the political zeitgeist by going full noise on the assault to household incomes was spectacularly rewarded just three days later, with the party leapfrogging Labour in the 1News Kantar Poll. (Most of the polling was conducted after Luxon had delivered his speech.)

It also chimed with Consumer New Zealand’s “Sentiment Tracker” survey which revealed that the cost of living had superseded Covid-19 and housing as New Zealand’s biggest concern.

STUFF

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the Cabinet will be reducing the fuel excise duty and road user charges by 25 cents a litre, as well as halving the price of public transport for three months.

As much as the Prime Minister brave-faced the tidal shift in the polls, with a carefully curated line, “I’m focused on people not polls,” Jacinda Ardern and her government then wasted a week contorting themselves into linguistic pretzels, doggedly dodging the C-word to describe the gravity of the cost of living powder keg.

The public were increasingly unimpressed by the political word games and cynical euphemisms. It was leaving Labour looking dangerously tone-deaf, detached and in denial about the crisis. Something had to give as the pressure ratcheted up.

In hindsight, National missed a trick by not swiftly demanding immediate relief at the petrol pump, as fuel prices continued smashing new records. Luxon had only called for the abolition of the Auckland regional fuel tax, leaving the party looking suspiciously Auckland-centric.

The door had been left ajar and Labour seized the opportunity to walk right in, wresting back control of the narrative by looking all pragmatic and responsive with a stonking cut in fuel excise for at least the next three months.

But Luxon’s bigger lost opportunity is surely the shock loss of his Finance spokesman. Simon Bridges was the architect of the cost living crisis attack strategy, relentlessly hounding the government about the hip pocket pain. It has proven to be a spectacular circuit-breaker for National’s fortunes.

To lose the man who prosecuted the case so effectively against the government is a colossal blow. Bridges possessed the rare mix of intellect, conviction and mongrel. He was a formidable retail politician who could get under the grill of Grant Robertson’s exceptional debating skills.

Just before Christmas, Luxon extolled Bridges “intellectual heft. He’s the guy we need to go up against this Government.” Damn right. So to lose that rare talent in such a critical role, just three months post-appointment, would be considered careless in the corporate world.

It raises renewed concerns that the dynamics of the conservative and liberal wings within National are not at peace under Luxon, nor feeling equally valued. As one of the leaders of the urban liberal wing, Nicola Willis’s elevation into the finance role doesn’t quell those concerns. She’s undoubtedly a smart cookie, but I’m unconvinced she will trouble Robertson in Question Time.

Meanwhile, the Beehive remains in mad scramble mode, as they play catch-up with shifting public opinion over pandemic management.

Just four days after the 1News Kantar Poll revealed that 75 per cent of Kiwis want the border reopened to overseas visitors, the government duly confirmed that Australian tourists will be welcome back in from April 13, followed by visa-waiver visitors a few weeks later. The dates may have been pre-set, but the announcement certainly felt hastily brought forward.

As the second anniversary of New Zealand’s first lockdown dawns, the government is unquestionably scampering to dismantle much of its pandemic protection architecture.

Welcome to our nouveau normal and welcome to Labour’s anxious pursuit of regaining the political ascendancy.



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