No opposition in living memory has gone into its first conference after losing power in better shape than Simon Bridges' National.

This is partly because of the circumstances that led to it leaving office in 2017.

However strongly and correctly constitutional lawyers insist otherwise, a significant hunk of voters will never accept the Ardern-Peters Government as legitimate.


More important is how clumsy, incompetent yet arrogant the coalition has proven to be.

Jacinda Ardern is, of course, a political superstar, internationally more so even than domestically. So too is Winston Peters in his own unpredictable way.

Beyond the top two, David Parker is highly competent although completely overloaded, and Grant Robertson is doing a reasonable job minding the till.

But the rest of the line-up is dire.

Andrew Little was earlier picked as a top performer but the Angry Andy persona that ruined his shot at the prime ministership has now caused problems with both Australia and the Ngāpuhi settlement process.

The third-ranked Kelvin Davis is embarrassingly out of his depth.

David Clark and Chris Hipkins have mismanaged their relationships in the health and education sectors. Welfare minister Carmel Sepuloni seems to regard success as increasing the number of New Zealanders on the dole. Iain Lees-Galloway's plans for something like 1970s national awards is behind the sharp fall in business confidence.

Clare Curran, the so-called Open Government Minister, has become something of a national joke. Even more comical is Phil Twyford's KiwiBuild, which seems to involve nothing more than him buying houses that were going to be built anyway and on-selling them through a socially unjust ballot system. Is it better or worse if he makes a profit or a loss when doing so?


Meanwhile, the very nature of Shane Jones' provincial growth fund will surely soon deliver a wasteful spending scandal.

To a certain extent, National needs simply to wait.

Through Jacindamania, Robertson's massive $24 billion budget spend up and its own leadership change, National has seen its poll rating remain just above or below what took it so close to a fourth term 10 months ago.

For some terrifying days following the birth of baby Neve, Labour surged in National's private polling.

It is not clear whether it says something charming or alarming about our country that the most important thing Ardern has done poll-wise since becoming prime minister is not fees-free tertiary education, the Families Package or the new oil and gas exploration ban, but giving birth.

Bridges didn't help with his John Key-like clowning around on Radio Hauraki.

Since all the excitement a month ago, though, the polls have returned to normal, although with NZ First a little higher than usual as a result of Peters being the centre of attention.

National strategists expect another temporary surge in the polls when Ardern returns to Wellington.

Giving confidence to National is not just the temporary nature of these Labour surges but that the party's weekly polls respond positively when Bridges and his team talk seriously about bread-and-butter issues such as the economy, law and order, education, health and even foreign affairs.

Even on medicinal cannabis, National has won unexpected plaudits for working seriously with experts in the US and New Zealand on a sound regulatory proposal, in contrast to the shallow sloganeering of the Government.

National strategists are under no illusion that Bridges or anyone in its ranks can win a battle of personality cults with Ardern.

Instead, it trusts that by 2020 the median voter will have tired of the celebrity politics characteristic of most of the previous 12 years and be looking for a more serious alternative.

Moreover, looking at the last three times National has been in Government, under Muldoon, Bolger and Key, the party's MPs, activists and Bridges himself are wary of personality cults.

It was the Bolger Government that ultimately had by far the greater enduring impact on New Zealand, on everything from the Fiscal Responsibility Act to the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process.

Looking across the debating chamber, Bridges has no expectation Ardern's Government will amount to much, and is privately more complimentary of the less-popular Helen Clark, at least in terms of leaving a legacy.

The new leader is conscious of the widening gap in per capita GDP between Australia and New Zealand, and that the brief period of migration across the Tasman being west-to-east rather than east-to-west is coming to an end.

Having sharpened himself up on the stage at more than 70 public meetings and talking face-to-face to more than 10,000 voters throughout the country, Bridges is aiming for a solid, serious performance this weekend to differentiate himself from a Government which he believes has nothing to offer except shallow celebrity.

- Matthew Hooton is managing director of PR and corporate affairs firm Exceltium.