Claire Trevett: What’s eating National MP Simon Bridges, and why is Judith Collins letting him get away with it?


National Party MP Simon Bridges is certainly doing his best to try to make life difficult for the party’s leader Judith Collins.

Bridges’ “wokester” attacks on Police Commissioner Andy Coster were entertaining for onlookers, and got him attention.

But if Bridges was any other MP, he would have been well and truly hauled into line by now for his tendency to trample into other’s portfolio areas and to do so without any heads-up to the leader.

Thus far Collins has let Bridges get away with it. That may be because she secretly agreed with him – or because she appreciates life is probably not easy for a former leader who can, with some justification, feel disgruntled about being rolled.

It may also be because she is wary of poking into that hornet’s nest.

She has stopped short of properly reprimanding him or disciplining him – not least because the consequences could be more destructive than productive for her.

Collins appears to be waiting for the rest of caucus to get fed up with him, and remind Bridges of the cost of breaching her “no distractions” rule.

That may not be long.

While Bridges was show-ponying, National’s housing spokeswoman Nicola Willis was getting an actual hit on the Government by attacking the progressive home ownership scheme’s deliver of just 12 homes thus far.

Strife in the housing portfolio (from state housing wait lists to property price rises) has been manna to the National Party this year, since the KiwiBuild debacle was wearing thin and it needed a sequel.

In short, she was doing exactly what Bridges was trying to do and get a hit on the Government – but without the theatrics.

National needs those hits.

Underlying Bridges’ actions is his own frustration about the lack of traction National is getting against a seemingly untouchable Labour Government. Bridges has always chosen to fight.

As leader, Bridges knew how to keep National in the media and to stay high in the polls.

This week, he was doing what he did then. It may even do them some good.

But Covid-19 changed things: Collins is up against a completely different picture.

And National is still struggling to work out how to “oppose” in the Covid era.

One National MP observed of Standard and Poor’s credit rating lift for New Zealand earlier this week that it left National with almost nowhere to attack the Government on Covid.

Its hopes of attacking on economic grounds thinned dramatically as the economy proved more resilient than expected.

There are signs it is sorting that out, and it is doing so the old-fashioned way: by MPs working hard in their portfolios to find the chinks in the Government’s armour.

Those MPs are turning to Labour’s Achilles’ heels – such as housing, and law and order.

As well as Willis and Bishop, Simeon Brown has been fairly aggressive in the Corrections portfolio over the past few months, despite Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis’ rather arrogant dismissal of Brown as “who cares what Simeon Brown says”. Erica Stanford has also started to make some inroads in Immigration.

But several on the front bench have been all but invisible.

Bridges’ antics also highlight the underlying tension between the left and the right in National as it tries to re-build after the election result.

Those on the right see the likes of Willis and Bishop as dragging the party too far to the left on social issues, and being too timid to speak on traditional National policies for fear of upsetting the “woke”.

There is one issue on which everyone in National is in agreement: disgruntlement with the Speaker, Trevor Mallard. That relationship is on dangerous ground – and neither side is blameless.

In that regard, there was one assessment made by Bridges this week which Collins would probably applaud: his description of Mallard as a “twat”.

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