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Liam Hehir: Bridges best bet for conservatives

Simon Bridges may not be a sure bet to topple Jacinda Ardern, but you go to war with the army you have - and he's the best general available for National, Liam Hehir argues.

Is Simon Bridges a sure bet to conquer Labour in the era of Jacinda Ardern? Of course not. But in political campaigns, as with military ones, you go to war with the army you have. You choose from the generals who are available to lead when the time comes.

Its a hard road finding the perfect leader. Each of the contenders brings something to the table, but none of them is perfect. They are all human beings. They are all flawed and inconsistent in their own ways.

National is a big organisation and is something of a catch-all party. Its conservative elements must share room with liberal and even social democratic ones. That's not surprising, perhaps, given that the party was founded as a practical alliance to resist the more radical and ideological mode of reform associated with Labour.

Because no tendency can ever dominate all the others, no National leader can afford to ignore the concerns of any large segment of the party. There is little tolerance for the insistence of philosophical discipline from any one corner. The National Party does not really go in for ideological civil wars (personal civil wars are a different matter).

So for those on the right of the centre-right, there are will never be a leader who embodies all the traits and holds all the positions they desire. There will never be a New Zealand Ronald Reagan That's probably a good thing since elections are for winning and, in this country, the winning is done from the centre.

In any leadership contest, conservatives should root for the most rightward option of those least likely to alienate the public or the wider party. And in 2018, that person is Simon Joseph Bridges, the Member of Parliament for Tauranga since 2008.

"[Bridges] is conservative, but not stupidly so. Nothing during his time in Parliament suggests that he would fight a culture war which he would be doomed to lose."

I should note that other centre-right commentators and writers will undoubtedly reach different conclusions.

Amy Adams has announced her candidacy, flying the flag for the liberals within National. While it's not where I come from, it's a longstanding and valid tradition within the party. And, of course, Adams had shown herself to be a more than capable minister in the last government.

I expect there will be some support for Papakura's Judith Collins. In her public statements, Collins has indicated disdain for hesitancy to stand on principle. We could expect a Collins leadership to more conviction-led and less poll-driven and, in that way, her selection would sound the end of the Key era.

But for those who are more sceptical of the ability of politicians to sell policies which the public has not demanded, Bridges is the choice. He is conservative, but not stupidly so. Nothing during his time in Parliament suggests that he would fight a culture war which he would be doomed to lose.

His relative youth is tempered by substantive executive experience. In the prior ministry, he held roles as Minister of Labour, Minister of Energy and Resources, Minister for Communications, Minister of Transport and Minister for Economic Development. He knows how government works.

He has squared off with Jacinda Ardern before, having been regularly paired with her as duelling interviewees on breakfast television. And, of course. His first victory in elective politics was the defeat of Winston Peters in the contest for Tauranga in 2008, after National incumbent Bob Clarkson's retirement.

"Bridges has a reputation for smuggery among the smart-set, which will put a target on his back. His detractors question his likability (although I can’t see the alternatives being materially better here)."

He has also been through the wringer with the press in the past. This should have imparted lessons that are crucial for any National leader.

Bridges has had his stumbles. In the 2016 Northland by-election, he participated in a (failed) attempt at pork barrel politics that saw the government rightly criticised. As Associate Justice Minister, he closed down iPredict, a popular betting market, on of the hard-to-believe grounds that it posed a money laundering risk.

More superficially, Bridges has a reputation for smuggery among the smart-set, which will put a target on his back. His detractors question his likability (although I can’t see the alternatives being materially better here). And, like John Key before him, his working-class accent will be mocked by gentry liberals who dominate the political media.

But more than anyone else, Bridges feels like the centre-right candidate you would choose if you feel National can win in 2020. Pulling that off would be a tall order, of course, but not impossible. With National still the most popular party, it certainly can’t be rejected.

So, by my reckoning, it should be Bridges for the leadership.

Liam Hehir is a writer and newspaper columnist from the rural Manawatu and a former National Party activist.

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