John Key. That's what Simon is aiming for. Key famously ruled out working with Winston Peters after the 2008 election, a move that many think contributed to NZ First not making it back into parliament that year.
Except when Key made his move, he made it from a position of near total dominance. From the time he became leader of National until the 2008 General Election there had been just two opinion polls showing Labour ahead of National. This was out of 116 polls. At one point National was leading Labour by 27 points.
Since Bridges was elected leader of National, National has led Labour in 10 out of 17 polls. Crucially, there has not been a single poll since the 2017 election where National has had more than Labour plus Greens combined.
I guess the thinking here is that those NZ First voters who might also be soft National supporters will now jump to National, knowing that there is no chance NZ First will work with Bridges after the election. Except I would hazard that after Winston chose Labour, and has been in government with them for over two years, those NZ First voters who like National have long ago returned to National anyway.
From a strategic perspective, the timing makes no sense either. Bridges should have ruled Winston out as soon as he became leader, that would have been the ultimate display of courage and a clear sign of what sort of government he'd like to lead. Or done it 8 weeks out from an election.
Doing it now means National will probably get a small bump in the immediate future which will whittle away as the country is reminded who Simon Bridges is. It should always be remembered that when Simon did his tour of New Zealand to introduce himself to the country, it didn't just lead to the horrible Jami-Lee Ross affair, but also to fewer people liking Bridges than before they knew him.
This stunt is also probably the most attention Bridges will get between now and the election campaign proper. By making this move, he's rendered himself all but irrelevant. Irrelevancy is the most damaging thing that can happen to a political leader. Remember Goff, and Shearer, and Cunliffe, and Little? All were considered nowhere men, Russel Norman was talked of as "leader of the opposition" during this period. I guess this makes the leader of the opposition David Seymour?
And all this to gain what? A perceived three per cent from NZ First that isn't actually there to begin with?
It exposes some serious shortcomings in Bridges' - and by association the National Party's - judgment which is a genuine factor in deciding who you want leading the country.
National was longer odds to be leading the next government than Labour, but they have just made them considerably longer.
For Simon to become Prime Minister, National and ACT need to poll above Labour, the Greens and NZ First combined. Or one or both of those parties needs to drop below five percent. Bridges may have been emboldened by the most recent One News Poll in November last year that had exactly this scenario playing out. Labour's latest internal polling actually has them alone polling above National, and both NZ First and the Greens above five percent, making Simon's task herculean.
Another scenario is that a Labour and Greens coalition looks most likely, forcing some National voters to vote for NZ First to act as a handbrake on what Labour and the Greens might do. This move may, in fact, increase NZ First's vote.
Every person I have spoken to from the Government side was quietly pleased with this decision.
There's a lot of time between now and the election, and Bridges may have played this exactly right. For that to happen, a lot of things need to go his way, and he'll have to be one hell of a campaigner if he's to out-campaign one of the most likeable and empathetic Prime Ministers we've had in a long time. If it turns out to be a winning play, then dinner's on me.
This column was originally going to be about what a disastrous start to the year Simon and National have had after ending 2019 on a relative high. Labour came roaring out of the blocks with its infrastructure announcement that both rewarded and gave space to its coalition partners, while at the same time undermined National's roads obsession. Then the Serious Fraud Office laid charges over some donations that were made to National. But now Simon has come out and potentially shot himself in both feet, his crotch, and his face so I didn't even need to mention the other stuff.
If you think that Simon is going to lead National to victory then he's going to have to perform at least as well as John Key did. And he'll have to do this against Jacinda Ardern. Good luck Mr Bridges. Because you ain't no Mr Key.