National Party leadership: Is there a pothole in Simon Bridges’ road back to the leadership?

OPINION:

Simon Bridges’ road to regaining the National Party leadership could have hit a pothole: a counter-offensive is being mounted by some MPs who hope Christopher Luxon can eventually be persuaded to step up instead.

The Herald understands some MPs, including Chris Bishop, are trying to put the brakes on any leadership change in the short term and have sounded out Luxon about whether he would be willing to take on the job this term.

The goal appears to be to try to buy some time to persuade Luxon to step up after he has more experience, or to see if another contender starts to become apparent.

While there is a broad view a leadership change from Judith Collins is needed, some MPs are concerned about Bridges’ popularity and whether the party will fare much better under him than Collins.

However, Luxon has shown little appetite for an early tilt at the job.

Persuading him go for the leadership early could be difficult because of the risk an election loss in 2023 sees his chances to be PM fizzle out almost before they began.

On Tuesday, Luxon denied anybody had approached him about running for the leadership.

Bridges is still only ranking at about 1 per cent as preferred prime minister despite all the speculation about a comeback.

Luxon has been slowly rising up the rankings as preferred PM. Although he is still only at about 4 per cent – just below Collins – he currently has the most support of any other National MP.

While many voters are yet to form an opinion on Luxon, some MPs feel he is their best chance to boost the party’s flagging fortunes before the 2023 election.

However, others are concerned about his lack of experience, especially given the pressure of the role of Leader of Opposition.

A countermove could put a spoke in the wheels for Bridges: while he could muster a majority, he has made it clear to his supporters that he will not challenge for the leadership unless he gets very wide backing from caucus.

That would require at least some of the liberals camp falling in behind him.

One MP said there was still of water to go under the bridge before any coup would occur – the most likely timing is now early next year, although December is still possible.

The move comes amid horse-trading over who would have which positions in any Bridges-led caucus.

The Bridges’ camp has made it clear neither Bishop nor Nicola Willis would be deputy – instead Bridges wants their fellow liberal, the Auckland-based Erica Stanford, or centrists Louise Upston or Mark Mitchell.

Luxon is expected to be given finance and the number 3 position under any future Bridges’ leadership – a role that would better prepare him to take on the leadership in future.

His mentor, Sir John Key, took on the finance portfolio when Don Brash took over the leadership in 2004.

If those MPs come up against a brick wall with Luxon, they could well swing in behind Bridges, although it means it will not be as clean as he might have hoped.

On Tuesday, Bridges maintained his line that he had “no intention” of challenging Collins to become National Party leader.

However, National has been stagnating in the polls even while Labour has been dropping.

In response to a 1News Colmar Brunton poll on Monday which showed Collins had dropped to 5 per cent as preferred PM, Collins said Bridges “is not the leader, and won’t be”.

In this month’s Taxpayers Union Curia poll, Bridges had the highest favourability score of the National MPs:23.9 per cent viewed him favourably compared to 15 per cent for Collins and 16.7 per cent for Luxon.

However, Bridges also had high unfavourables – 44.4 per cent viewed him unfavourably compared to 22.7 per cent for Luxon. That meant Luxon’s net results were better than Bridges – although fewer people had yet formed a view on him at all.

Collin’s unfavourables were much higher than both: 57.7 per cent viewed her unfavourably and only 15 per cent favourably.

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