COMMENT: Make no mistake: if there are too many more polls like Newshub's on Monday then Simon Bridges will be toast.
The problem is not Bridges' preferred Prime Minister ratings. He could go to zero as long as National was on track to limit Jacinda Ardern to a single term.
The concern is the suggestion National is now six points behind Labour, a result completely unacceptable to the party's MPs, activists, supporters and donors.
Worse, assuming the Greens can squeak back into Parliament on 5 per cent, the Newshub poll had National 11 points behind a new Labour-Green Government.
In New Zealand politics, such a gap between the left and right is seen as an absolute thumping. For context, it is roughly the margin by which Helen Clark, the Alliance and the Greens dispatched Jenny Shipley, Act and Peter Dunne in 1999, and that by which John Key saw off Phil Goff, David Cunliffe and the Greens in 2011 and 2014.
The Newshub poll prompted some chatter among National MPs on Monday night but nothing close to the intensity required for a coup attempt to be credible, let alone successful.
Moreover, while National MPs respect the integrity of Reid Research which carried out the poll, they query Newshub's decision to begin polling the very night Ardern was receiving saturation media coverage from Davos.
All seasoned political analysts know a Prime Minister's party gets an immediate but temporary boost from such events. National MPs believe the timing of Newshub's first poll in eight months reflects poorly on its judgment.
Even those MPs who were least supportive of Bridges when he won the leadership over Amy Adams, Steven Joyce, Judith Collins and Mark Mitchell say it would take several 41 per cent polls by other news organisations for leadership chat to move beyond the hypothetical. They are impressed with how he has begun the year and how he led the recent caucus retreat.
Still, were there to be a change, a consensus is emerging that there is little choice but to opt for Collins.
Neither Adams nor Mitchell has demonstrated any special leadership qualities in finance or defence. Despite his success in climate change, it is unclear if Todd Muller would be more popular with voters than Bridges.
Of National's other top performers, Nikki Kaye is the preferred candidate for people who would never vote National under any circumstances, Paul Goldsmith knows his limitations despite humiliating Shane Jones over the Provincial Growth Fund and aspires only to be Finance Minister, and Chris Bishop is both too young and still too associated with the Wellington establishment that the National grassroots despises.
In contrast, Collins has a recognised brand, a talent for publicity and a strong following with both National Party members and voters. National MPs blocking her, despite her being the only one of their number other than Bridges on the preferred Prime Minister tables, would cause the same sort of
internal feuding that hampered National in the early 2000s.
Labour cheerleaders insist that Collins becoming leader would cause National's vote to plunge to 30 per cent but this seems implausible.
First, it wrongly extrapolates the venom towards her found in liberal heartlands like Grey Lynn to the rest of the country.
More importantly, it reveals innumeracy. Polls sum to 100 per cent and, in the current four-party system, National plunging to 30 per cent implies the governing parties would rise close to a combined 70 per cent.
To believe that, you need to posit between 300,000 and 430,000 voters who are still intending to vote National under Bridges but who would switch to Labour, the Greens or NZ First, or not vote at all, if Collins replaced him.
In fact, given Bridges' unpopularity, it seems improbable Collins would be more polarising than he is.
In any case, change requires National to have first suffered a series of credible polls with numbers comparable with or worse than those reported by Newshub.
The priority under those circumstances would be to maintain or attract back National's core voters. A well-known but polarising figure would be exactly what the party needed, as opposed to a 30-year party veteran like Muller or a liberal champion like Kaye.
All this remains hypothetical. There is no immediate push for change. National believes the Coalition's policy failures and structural instability are only beginning.
Bridges' planned policy papers, starting with the environment, are meant to mark him as a serious and studious leader in contrast to Ardern's vacuousness on everything from China to child poverty.
All eyes are on the next poll, expected to be by 1 News' Colmar Brunton.
- Matthew Hooton is managing director of PR and corporate affairs firm Exceltium.