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Dunne: One word may decide Bridges’ fate

Sometimes a single misjudgment or even just one word can prove the downfall of a politician. For Simon Bridges, that word may be 'embarrassing', writes former minister Peter Dunne.

Many years ago, the then British Prime Minister, James Callaghan, returned home from a Commonwealth Heads of Government conference in the Caribbean, at the height of a particularly cold British winter in what was to become known as the “Winter of Discontent” and, as befitted his “Sunny Jim” moniker, jocularly responded to a television interviewer’s question about the mounting industrial chaos and the grim weather with the immortal words: “Crisis. What crisis?”

That throwaway line thereafter defined his hitherto comparatively successful Prime Ministership as out of touch, and contributed mightily to the defeat of his government by Margaret Thatcher five months later.

Similarly with former Labour leader David Shearer, who could be described as the best Prime Minister New Zealand never had. Certainly, Sir John Key saw him as potentially the most formidable of the four Labour leaders he faced during his time as Prime Minister. And Shearer’s subsequent performances as head of the United Nations mission to South Sudan, as demonstrated through recent television interviews, have shown him to be a person of substance who would have represented New Zealand with distinction in international fora.

Yet, a trivial stunt involving a couple of dead fish brought about his premature demise as leader and ultimately as a member of Parliament. These were gaffes in the great tradition of President Gerald Ford’s assertion during the 1976 Presidential election debates that there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” under his administration. Of themselves they were not all that significant, but they went on to define the leader and contributed to their subsequent downfall.

National leader Simon Bridges’ comments about the leave of absence granted to his senior MP, Jami-Lee Ross, as “embarrassing” now also fall within that dubious tradition.

Most of Bridges’ comments at the media conference, where he uttered the unfortunate word more than once, had been a model of sympathy and understanding for his colleague’s situation. Respectful, sympathetic, understanding, compassionate even, but all pushed into the background by one word.

A few days later, those other words are all but forgotten, and Bridges has been required to backtrack more than once for the use of the word “embarrassing”.

For Bridges the question now becomes whether that silly and unfortunate use of words will, like the examples before him, create such an impression as to eventually overwhelm him, or whether he can move on from them.

Certainly, although he is yet to connect sufficiently with the public to be seen as a possible Prime Minister, in other areas Bridges seems to be doing a reasonable job as party leader. His caucus appears united and purposeful, and the National Party’s support levels have remained steady over the last year. This is not to say that he was on his way to Premier House, rather that he was on his way to becoming a contender.

One word could have changed all that.

To put this incident behind him, Bridges now needs to act boldly and decisively. For a start, he should bury once and for all the ridiculous inquiry he set up into the leaking of his expenses.

He could justify this, saying he has made his point to the party and the public, but that the lingering inquiry has become distracting, at a time when he wants to focus on the issues that truly matter to New Zealanders, like rising fuel prices, and a slowing economy. He could say that he is moving on, in the public interest, and that he is drawing a clear line under what has happened.

That way, he would demonstrate decisiveness and clarity, as well as staunching the endless speculation his inquiry has given rise to about internal goings on in the National Party. It would give him the opportunity to project himself as a positive and focused leader of action, against a Government which still has too much of a “possum trapped in the headlights” look and feel about it. Whether he is up to, or willing, to act so sharply will become clearer in the next few weeks, so is still an open call. However, without such a gear shift now, Bridges increasingly risks looking doomed - reduced to treading water until a credible alternative comes forward.

For beleaguered Labour, this situation is potentially a godsend. A Don Quixote like leader of the National Party tilting at the windmills of his own making is a wonderful distraction. However, for the moment, Bridges retains one key advantage - he alone holds all the keys to his own future. How he uses them in the next few weeks may well prove critical to his survival.

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