The defining characteristic of Simon Bridges' career has been exceeding expectations – not as a policy-maker but at least in terms of climbing the greasy pole. He need do so only one more time to become New Zealand's 41st prime minister later this year.
National's strategy for 2020 is based primarily on the Ardern Government being uniquely incompetent in New Zealand history. Old timers suggest the Kirk-Rowling government as a rival, but in its three years it abolished compulsory military service, recognised the People's Republic of China and established ACC, the Domestic Purposes Benefit and the Waitangi Tribunal. If the Ardern Government is similarly limited to one term, it will leave no legacy at all to trouble future historians.
• National Leader Simon Bridges is promising his party will be the 'party of infrastructure'
• National Leader Simon Bridges and TV personality Nigel Latta engage in a war of words
• Awkward conversation: Simon Bridges' charity dinner with Luxon backer
• Winston Peters' lawyer threatens to sue Simon Bridges, Nick Smith
Still, if National thinks it can just cruise back into government this year, it is wrong. While Oppositions don't win elections and governments lose them, the pretender must at least appear plausible as a replacement. On that score, National made progress in the second half of 2019 but is not there yet.
Everyone loves a Lazarus story, and Bridges has earned respect for resilience. Back in April, the Labour-Green bloc was polling 54 per cent with National a massive 14 points behind and without allies. Jacinda Ardern achieved her highest preferred Prime Minister ranking at 51 per cent while Bridges lagged behind Judith Collins. Had Collins struck, the job would be hers. Like the Wehrmacht at Dunkirk, she inexplicably paused.
Bridges' most important strategic decision for 2020 is whether or not to rule out governing with NZ First. National's strong rhetoric against the perennial king-maker limits its options. In the court of public opinion, Bridges would be convicted of gross hypocrisy if he indicated he would lead a Bridges-Peters regime.
Some speculate National could split hairs by ruling out working with Winston Peters but not NZ First as a party. After all, NZ First has indicated over the years it might work with National but not with certain personnel. But no self-respecting party – even a smaller one – will tolerate being told by another who its senior figures will be. In any case, Shane Jones is hardly perceived as materially more ethical than Peters.
Nor will National find moral high ground by waiting until, as expected, the Electoral Commission refers NZ First to the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) over the NZ First Foundation. National is itself under investigation by the SFO over donations allegations involving its leader. Moreover, given the SFO's record of taking only around 1 per cent of complaints to trial, there is almost zero chance of charges being laid against either party anyway. If Bridges seeks kudos for taking a principled stand, he will need to rule out NZ First altogether early in the year.
Bridges' more personally difficult decisions are around his own team. As Deputy Leader and Campaign Chairperson, Paula Bennett's place is fixed. So too is that of Trade Spokesman Todd McClay, Bridges' main strategist. Nearly as safe is Finance Spokesman Paul Goldsmith given his friendship with Bridges, his links with the Auckland business community and his strong early performance in softening National's fiscal stance despite his own unimpeachable right-wing credentials. Collins will remain in the top five for as long as she chooses not to self-destruct.
Beyond that senior group, there are refinements available to Bridges to plausibly run a contemporary version of National's old "man for man the better team" slogan, which it used when unsuccessfully seeking a fifth term in 1972.
The good news for Bridges is that his party has enough talent in its line-up for that message to appeal. Better still, there are obvious underperformers available to make room for promotions.
As recently as 2017, sixth-ranked Mark Mitchell fancied himself as party leader but has never given an indication as to why. Similarly unimpressive are ninth-ranked Michael Woodhouse, 13th-ranked Jacqui Dean and 14th-ranked Melissa Lee, all of whom should be making hay against Labour in health, local government and broadcasting respectively. Alfred Ngaro was planning to abandon National for a new Christian party less than a year ago, but failed in that project too. Mysteriously, he remains at number 11.
With Ardern unwilling to properly deal with even her most notorious underperformers, Bridges could demonstrate sterner stuff.
Already highly ranked, Nikki Kaye is National's indispensable liberal and deserves even greater prominence. After a successful stint in law and order, Chris Bishop has again proven himself in transport, albeit against the hapless Phil Twyford. Todd Muller's first-class work in climate change and now with provincial New Zealand makes him heir apparent should Bridges fail in 2020. Bluegreen chairman Scott Simpson successfully maintains positive relationships with the environmental movement.
Further down the line up, former dairy-industry leader Barbara Kuriger should be New Zealand's first woman agriculture minister. With a background in medicine, accountancy, business and the military, former Harvard assistant professor Dr Shane Reti should be a shoe-in for any portfolio he chooses. Investment banker Andrew Bayley has a little of the touch of John Key. Former Key staffer and Fonterra executive Nicola Willis deserves to be rocketed into the top 20. Former naval officer and property lawyer Chris Penk has greater potential than he has been allowed to display. From Auckland's crucial North Shore, Erica Stanford and Dan Bidois are also ready for serious promotion.
Among the older hands, Gerry Brownlee and Nick Smith have their critics but also enormous experience and even some acquired wisdom. Louise Upston is holding her own in the difficult social development portfolio.
Such a shadow cabinet would be a highly plausible government-in-waiting.
Bridges knows he will lose any battle of the hugs against Ardern. But bringing together a new-generation National Party team, clearly distinct from anything that has come before, would demonstrate leadership qualities, seriousness of purpose, a commitment to meritocracy and an insistence on delivery that his rival clearly lacks. On those terms at least, Bridges too would best his opposite number.