COMMENT:

No Opposition party can ever say things are going brilliantly, or it wouldn't be in Opposition.

But things could be so much worse for Simon Bridges and the National Party than they are.

For that reason alone, they should feel some degree of satisfaction going into their first party conference since losing power.

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They will take some comfort from the view that the voters did not reject them, New Zealand First did.

And Bridges has done more than enough to earn the respect of delegates in his first five months as leader.

He has made few obvious errors, he presided over the win in the Northcote byelection, and he has undertaken a national tour at a punishing pace, holding 66 public meetings.

His caucus appears to be working hard, exploiting vulnerabilities within the Government, and not showing any signs of disunity despite there having been a hotly contested leadership contest in February among five candidates.

A low rating as preferred Prime Minister will be a nagging issue for Bridges but it is not a game-changer.

Jim Bolger and Helen Clark both formed coalition Governments on the back of low ratings as preferred Prime Minister.

They were not electorally "likeable" like John Key or Jacinda Ardern but they were electable.

There is only one poll that counts at elections and between elections and that is the party vote.

National leader Simon Bridges has undertaken a national tour at a punishing pace, holding 66 public meetings, including at Taupo. Photo / Laurilee McMichael
National leader Simon Bridges has undertaken a national tour at a punishing pace, holding 66 public meetings, including at Taupo. Photo / Laurilee McMichael

National's relatively high party-vote polling has been an extraordinary feature of the past year. Despite the loss of two political superstars, in Key and English, and the ascension of a relative junior in Bridges up against another superstar in Ardern, its support has held up.

Bridges can take a little of the credit, but the polling it is more a legacy of the Key, English and Steven Joyce years.

They exerted a vice-like control over National's brand for nine years which caused resentment within the caucus but was so effective it has served the party well in the early days of Opposition.

The brand combined English's economic conservatism and credibility with Key's social liberalism and left Joyce to finesse the messaging and politics.

Bridges is now protector of the brand and he needs to handle it with care.

The question is what will that brand look like in three years' time and what will Bridges' conservatism do to the National Party brand. The answer is not much at present because his profile is still very low but as it grows it may have more of an effect.

Offsetting the potential for Bridges to accentuate the conservative is the fact that he is surrounded by stroppy women on his front bench, whom he put there.

Normally it wouldn't necessarily be a big deal but the three potentially polarising social issues in front of the country will present new risks for him.

They don't come along often and they rarely come in threes but cannabis, euthanasia and abortion will all be dealt with this term in way or another.

Bridges was brought up in the Baptist church and remains a Christian with conservative views who has never smoked cannabis and voted against gay marriage.

Bridges appears to be alive to the risks. In an interview this week with the Herald he was super cautious on the abortion issue.

The two competing protests at Parliament on Wednesday, pro-life and pro-choice, each attracted different National Party MPs to both protests – basically the Christians and the feminists respectively.

Bridges sensibly did not align himself with either camp, instead saying he would wait for the Law Commission report – which will almost certainly recommend at the very least to take abortion out of the Crimes Act.

On euthanasia, he will vote against David Seymour's End of Life Choice Bill unless it report backs with much stronger safeguards.

And on cannabis he is indicating he will vote against recreational personal use in the referendum to be held at or before the 2020 election on the basis of the damage he has seen it do as a prosecutor to people's lives, particularly in the Eastern Bay of Plenty.

Things could be so much worse for Bridges and National. Illustration / Guy Body
Things could be so much worse for Bridges and National. Illustration / Guy Body

Bridges has the potential to accentuate the conservative that it could be to the detriment of the party's image of a broad church, especially contrasted with the "thoroughly modern mother" of Prime Minister.

On controversial non-conscience policies under development by the Government - criminal justice initiatives arising from the August summit and policies on work and welfare beneficiaries arising from a review due early next year - National will clearly take a more conservative line than the Government.

Offsetting the potential for Bridges to accentuate the conservative is the fact that he is surrounded by stroppy women on his front bench, whom he put there: Paula Bennett as deputy, Amy Adams in finance and Judith Collins in housing.

He has also agreed to talk to the Government on a bipartisan basis about a couple of issues on which National has landed on the wrong side for several years: climate change and poverty reduction.

The surprise move this week to release National's own detailed bill on how to regulate medicinal cannabis was imaginative politics.

It met with understandable hostility and cynicism from the Government, not least the MPs who had worked on the health select committee examining the Government bill.

But it was a piece of clever opportunism by National. It suggests the party is not going to sit around twiddling its thumbs while it hopes for the demise of New Zealand First and /or the Greens next election to hand them back power.

It chose an issue whose time has come, and put in some hard work. It gave Bridges a strong platform leading into the conference and smashed the old Left-Right, liberal-conservative stereotypes on the issue.

The National Party is nothing like the shape that Labour was in after its loss in 2008 which was afraid that a leadership contest would lead to the factionalism that had previously dogged it.

It has a fresh leader similar in age and experience to Ardern.

It is nothing like the shape National was in 1999 and 2002 where factional bitterness and rebellion reigned. There is, of course, plenty of time for that to emerge.

But having watched Labour in Opposition for nine years, National learned some good lessons in how not-to do it.