Liam Hehir: Bridges must move quickly on strategy
Simon Bridges will face significant challenges as opposition leader, and will have to quickly decide on the best approach to attack Jacinda Ardern and her government, Liam Hehir writes.
National Party MPs have selected Simon Bridges as its new leader at their conclave. He now becomes the leader of the opposition as well.
As someone who endorsed him for the leadership, I am pleased about this, but I don’t envy his task.
As I said elsewhere today, the challenges now facing Bridges are significant.
He has become the leader at the worst point in the electoral cycle for National. He goes up against a prime minister who receives gushing coverage from the press, many of whom seem to take any slight directed towards Jacinda Ardern as a personal wound.
Those are things he can’t control. Bridges can’t control those outside events which might alter the political landscape. And he can’t control the opinion polls that can be expected to show a decline for National (which would have occurred under any new leader, I think).
This will all be very frustrating. Being blocked by a brick wall is also frustrating. Punching it with your bare fists until your knuckles are raw and bloody is not a good strategy for overcoming that frustration.
So Bridges would be wise to focus on those things over which he can exert an influence. First and foremost, he must stabilise and fortify the National Party caucus. Whether this means accommodating or purging any destabilising personalities is a matter for his own judgement, but it is something that must be done quickly.
Bridges’ job is an inherently difficult one. The Leader of the Opposition must be patient but purposeful; to hold his opponent to account while avoiding headlong attacks against her, and to present as an alternative prime minister while managing expectations about how soon.
Bridges must also quickly decide upon a strategy for attacking the government. Being wary of Ardern’s political strength is not an excuse for doing nothing. Drifting without purpose and direction is an invitation to discontent and intrigue. Idle hands are the devil's workshop.
Labour’s strength is built around Ardern’s personal brand, so maybe Bridges should direct his team to focus on her weaker colleagues. Or maybe it would be better to keep attention on the Government’s sinking and flailing support partners. Whatever direction National chooses, Bridges has responsibility for the decision.
Bridges starts this part of his career with some advantages not enjoyed by others who have been in his position.
Despite the fantasies of Labour super-fans, the last National government was not discredited in the last election. National is not at risk of losing major party status in the manner Labour was before Ardern delivered it from that fate.
Nevertheless, Bridges’ job is an inherently difficult one. The opposition leader must be patient but purposeful; to hold his opponent to account while avoiding headlong attacks against her, and to present as an alternative prime minister while managing expectations about how soon that will be.
He can’t control the outcome of the next election, but he can control how he sets National up for it.
Liam Hehir is a writer and newspaper columnist from the rural Manawatu and a former National Party activist.
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