The National Party will not change its leader via Zoom.
This week's leadership speculation was sparked by the musings of blogger Cameron Slater and former Green Party director of communications and policy David Cormack. Both are associated with Papakura MP Judith Collins.
But Collins' admirers were not the only ones on manoeuvres. The ambitious Rodney MP Mark Mitchell made sure his name wasn't forgotten, allegedly in alliance with current deputy leader Paula Bennett.
One wild report even had Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller and Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye doing the numbers for a Mitchell-Bennett ticket. Those two are more likely to become a future ticket themselves, with a core of support out of retiring Selwyn MP Amy Adams' 2018 bid for the top job.
But that is clearly for another day, if ever. It's doubtful Muller and Kaye intend focusing on internal party politics amid a national crisis, even if the worst may be behind us.
For now, it's all academic anyway. National's caucus will not be in one room together until Jacinda Ardern decides to put the country into level 2. A robust caucus debate and secret ballot is impractical using Zoom.
As an aside, we should note the democratic danger of a Prime Minister in practice having such influence over an opposition's activities. Ardern has every incentive to want Simon Bridges to remain in his role. While Ardern has not abused her special powers, she is still a politician and the sooner we return to normal parliamentary democracy, the better.
Whatever Ardern prefers, it is increasingly unlikely Bridges' leadership can be salvaged to get him through to the election, still scheduled for September 19.
Stories of private polls putting National as low as 31 per cent are surely exaggerated and Bridges will hope the first post-lockdown polls put his party within 10 points of Labour, and National-Act within 15 of Labour-Green-NZ First.
But the National caucus needs to consider the situation more carefully than the headline numbers and ask what makes rumours of 31 per cent poll ratings sound plausible.
Bridges' unlikeability is not the major problem. Helen Clark and Jim Bolger overcame similar numbers before winning three elections.
The real problem is Bridges' lack of political judgment. He was unfairly betrayed by Jami-Lee Ross, but no one else was responsible for bringing Ross into the inner sanctum in the first place.
That shambles in turn was caused by Bridges' fervent but completely unfounded belief that Speaker Trevor Mallard would be discovered as the culprit for leaking his travel expenses.
At the start of the current crisis, he failed to judge that the public was more interested in seeing a big fiscal stimulus than hearing criticism that some of the money would go to beneficiaries.
On the day New Zealanders were relieved to learn we would be coming out of level 4 on Tuesday rather than next month, he again couldn't rise to the occasion.
How difficult would it have been to simply applaud the Prime Minister's decision as correct under the circumstances, note that it was partly caused by health authorities failing to scale up testing and tracing systems despite weeks of notice, and assert that a National Government would have done better? Instead, as so often, he appeared to whine.
Even when sitting at 2 per cent in the polls, Bolger and Clark avoided sounding wet.
An election campaign is a daily crisis. Nicky Hager might claim you're hiding genetically modified corn. One of your candidates might start talking about his left testicle. Another might make anti-Semitic remarks about another party's leader. Religious extremists might distribute brochures supporting you. It might be alleged there's a fiscal hole in your party's books. You might forget your policy on taxing family trusts.
An Ardern, Key, Clark or even Bolger could usually be trusted to get on the radio the next day and settle things down.
An Andrew Little, David Cunliffe or Simon Bridges risks making it worse.
More importantly, the only problems that reach a Prime Minister's desk are those with no technical solution and no clear best option. Judgment calls are all Prime Ministers do.
It is intensely unfair when the media and public simply start not believing anything a leader has to say or — even worse — are no longer interested. But life isn't fair.
Like other failed opposition leaders, Bridges could say the sky is blue and a big chunk of median voters would commit to believing it is red.
It will be difficult for campaign strategists Bennett and Todd McClay to hold it together until September 19. National risks a debacle.
But it is essential National plays to win. Ardern may be one of the world's best symbolic communicators, but that can't hide her Government's profound incompetence.
It has failed utterly on housing, wellbeing, child poverty, tertiary education participation, school management reform, freshwater allocation, cleaner rivers, the capital gains tax, openness and transparency, mental health and even gun reform. Growth was slowing before the world had suffered even its first case of Covid-19.
Ardern introduced rigorous quarantining at the border well after Australia, costing a handful of lives, and her health authorities have proven incompetent at distributing either flu vaccines or PPE.
Looking ahead, Labour's lack of commercial experience in its senior ranks — with the exception of Attorney-General David Parker, seemingly sidelined during the Covid-19 crisis — makes it ill-suited to preside over tens of billions of dollars of post-Covid-19 infrastructure spending, let alone chart a course to pay it back.
Undeterred, Finance Minister Grant Robertson is now planning to use Covid-19 as the excuse for a radical new agenda based on the "future of work" vision he worked on in opposition but has barely progressed in Government.
Covid-19, Robertson told Business NZ last week, "is the challenge I have been waiting for".
According to Robertson, the "future of work" is not just about "decent work and higher wages ... but also working differently, drawing together business, unions, academics, entrepreneurs and more to develop ideas and solutions".
This is just the failed tripartitism of the 1970s with fancier PR.
There is everything, therefore, for National to fight for. It has an obligation to its own supporters and all New Zealanders to find a candidate for Prime Minister that the public might at least listen to.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant and lobbyist.