COMMENT:

There are some similarities between Emmet Brickowski, the everday hero of the Lego Movie, and National Party leader Simon Bridges.

For Bridges' entire life as an MP, the National Party has been like the Lego Universe - an orderly place in which strictly observed rules ensured everything was awesome and everyone was part of the team.

Imagine Bridges' shock this week when the rules broke, he fell down the hole and came upon the evil Lord Business with his weapon of mass destruction, the Kragel – Jami Lee Ross with his tapes and allegations.

Advertisement

There is no good time for a scandal to beset a political party, but the conflagration caused by Ross' retaliatory strike after being accused of inappropriate behaviour and leaking Simon Bridges' expenses could not have been worse.

Ross has proved himself a formidable enemy indeed, not least for his unpredictability. But in the long run, Bridges' greater enemy is likely to be the polls.

Throughout the week the Ross saga was unfolding, One News' pollsters Colmar Brunton were polling.

Public polls are few and far between in New Zealand now and One News is the only media outlet that still polls on a regular basis.

That gives individual polls a lot more impact and influence. There is less capacity to iron out 'rogue' results or show whether a dent or spike caused by an individual event is temporary.

So whatever that poll shows is what Bridges will have to live with for some time to come and much of it was taken before it became apparent that Ross did not have the evidence to back his allegations.

If only it was this easy: National Party leader Simon Bridges tries out some spray-on Deliverance. Photo / Paul Taylor
If only it was this easy: National Party leader Simon Bridges tries out some spray-on Deliverance. Photo / Paul Taylor

Until now, National's polling appeared to be cemented at 45 per cent come hell or high water. But National had not really known hell until this week.

The only bright spot was Gerry Brownlee's Facebook video on how to make weed killer out of salt and vinegar, along with warnings to beware its potency.

Despite all that, it will not be this poll which determines Bridges' fate.

Barring a further catastrophic revelation, this week has firmed up his position.

In National's caucus there was palpable anger about Ross and that has consolidated support behind Bridges.

None in that caucus wants Ross to get his way, including those who wanted Bridges' job.

Nobody will mount a challenge as long as it looks like Ross is the reason.

Nor are any of them necessarily better equipped to do the job.

The optimistic in National think there might even be a positive in this for Bridges in the form of either sympathy because of the extent of Ross' treachery or simply because he is still standing.

That may be overly hopeful.

But it has been the hardest, most visceral week any Opposition leader has survived as far back as anyone can remember. It did tell something about Bridges' character.

One of the reservations some had about Ardern before she became PM was that she was untested under pressure. Nobody can say that about Bridges now.

The polling was not the only factor of bad timing.

Yesterday marked the anniversary of NZ First leader Winston Peters deciding to put Labour into Government and National into Opposition. National could not have given them a better anniversary present.

Until last week, it was Labour on the ropes as it dealt with the departures from ministerial posts of both Clare Curran and Meka Whaitiri.

On the same day Ross held his long rambling press conference accusing Bridges of deeds most foul both Curran and Whaitiri returned to Parliament for the first time. Nobody paid them a jot of attention.

Until last week, National was also getting traction with its campaign on petrol taxes and living costs.

People filling their tanks and gritting their teeth at that extra $30 - $40 might well have thought of National's promise to rewind fuel tax increases.

This week, all National was talking about was itself. The effect of a party tangled up in its own dirty laundry is that they do not look like an alternative government.

The leader of a party helps voters decide whether a party can deliver on its promises but it was National's policies, reputation and stability that held the party up in the polls, whatever reservations people had about Bridges himself.

Things are salvageable if Bridges can get back to talking about something other than himself. His MPs are already working on it.

Illustration / Guy Body
Illustration / Guy Body

Since that day, cast-iron discipline has applied across its remaining 55 MPs. They slotted into turtle formation and got to work trying to salvage things.

It was the likes of Judith Collins, and the slighted Maureen Pugh, Chris Finlayson and Parmjeet Parmar who came to Bridges' rescue to downplay his recorded comments and to do so publicly. Any MP asked ostracised Ross and backed Bridges, whether on the record or off.

Deputy Paula Bennett was the constant, getting the hobnail boots on to discredit Ross and wading in to mop up after that first day when Bridges' handling of the donation allegations fell short.

He had improved immensely by the next day.

If Bridges cannot haul that party vote back, those same MPs will swiftly come to the same conclusion Ross did about Bridges' polling results. A chance of winning in 2020 will always be the litmus test.

On Thursday Bridges headed straight for the John Key playbook.

He began his speech at the Hawkes Bay A+P Show with a joke about his plight: ""I've got a new question I ask whenever I speak, is anyone taping me?"

It was something Key did whenever the winds were buffeting him. It was to send a message that things must not be that bad if he was joking about them.

Key survived some of his more dire moments, such as the ponytail pulling, because he had built up a reservoir of trust by the time it happened.

Bridges does not yet have that.

And sometimes it is the small things that hurt.

Bridges is not the only MP with a potty mouth but many of National's members will not have liked his description of Maureen Pugh as 'f***ing useless" in the taped phone conversation Ross released.

It was the first matter he addressed when he fronted on that tape. "It was a big and hard lesson for me," he said after apologising to Pugh.

It is not the only lesson of the week but with Ross still firing, the question is whether Bridges will still be there to take them.

On Thursday Bridges headed to a school in Hastings to try a body spray developed by a group of young entrepeneurs. The name of the spray was Deliverance.

If only it was so easy.