COMMENT:

Only the most devout National MPs will be at mass this Easter. The rest will be frantically calling, texting or WhatsApp-ing as they debate what to do about their beleaguered leader.

Make no mistake, dissatisfaction with Simon Bridges has reached a critical point. Contrary to some commentary, professional politicians do not distinguish between 39 and 40 per cent when reading polls. They know either would be disastrous for National at an election.

But the polls aren't Bridges' biggest problem anyway.

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National hasn't been New Zealand's most successful political machine for 70 years without an ability to be patient when the tide is out.

Following the Christchurch terrorist attack, National MPs know they must accept Jacinda Ardern is enjoying ascendancy just as David Lange did over Jim Bolger in the mid-1980s with the Rainbow Warrior bombing, anti-nuclear campaign and sharemarket boom.

Bridges' real problem is that, like the population at large, too many National MPs just don't like him that much.

When Bridges was revealed to have called National MP Maureen Pugh "f***ing useless", the suspicion was that this was not an uncharacteristic lapse, but typical of how he speaks privately about too many of them.

Publicly calling a long-serving National press secretary, who had even survived working in Nick Smith's challenging ministerial office, "an emotional junior staffer" further suggested Bridges doesn't proffer the same loyalty to his team that he expects to be afforded.

This links to questions about his judgment.

National MPs were never entirely comfortable with Bridges launching a full-scale investigation into the leaking of his travel expenses but went along with it partly because they accepted his hunch that the villain would turn out to be associated with Labour.

With the benefit of hindsight, paying party or taxpayers' funds to PwC, Simpson Grierson and a Queen's Counsel for the inquiry seems self-indulgent.

While the inquiry did not conclusively identify the leaker, it accelerated Jami-Lee Ross' public meltdown.

National MPs were generally highly sympathetic to Bridges for how he was treated by his former friend and numbers man, but there were also raised eyebrows about his judgment in placing such trust in Ross in the first place.

In contrast to the huge resources and privacy issues involved in the hunt for the still-unknown expenses leaker, National's commitment to the culture review it announced following the Ross debacle seems lukewarm.

If Bridges wasn't at least as serious about the culture review as the leak investigation, why initiate it at all?

Also questionable was Bridges trying to politicise any intelligence failures associated with the Christchurch terrorist attack and fussing over the Government inquiry being called a "Royal Commission".

His major success in opposing the capital gains tax will ultimately benefit not National, but Labour and NZ First.

Occasional tactical stuff-ups are to be expected in any organisation pushing strategic boundaries and are easily forgiven if there is confidence in the direction being set and the boss' overall leadership abilities.

Unfortunately for Bridges, and unlike the low-polling Bolger in the late 1980s, he is unable to point to a strong record as a minister in the previous Government.

His excuse was always plausible — that following Gerry Brownlee and Steven Joyce in transport, energy and economic development constrained him from changing their basic approach.

However, that excuse can't hold since he became leader, with John Key, Bill English and Joyce all out of Parliament and Brownlee on the second bench willing to give a new generation a go.

On no major economic, social or environmental issue has Bridges suggested a policy approach significantly distinct from the Key-English era.

After promising new policy papers, the first — on the environment — was little different from something Key or English might have launched, despite National recognising that getting on the wrong side of the water-quality issue was a factor in losing power.

When new ground has been sought, National's efforts under Bridges have either been risible, such as the campaign to stop a cull of the Himalayan tahr, or poorly presented, such as the tone of its campaign against the UN migration pact.

What may save Bridges are continued worries about his only credible successor, Judith Collins. If National MPs fret that Bridges is a Blair Pocock, they worry that Collins is a Brendon McCullum.

Give her the top job and there is a very good chance she'll smash her opponents all around the park. But there is nearly as good a chance she'll be out for a duck.

National MPs can tittle-tattle with one another all they like this Easter weekend. But in the end, all that really matters is their appetite for risk.

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