COMMENT: By Neale Jones

It was about a week before Andrew Little resigned. I was his chief of staff and he'd called me into his office to discuss the latest poll results. It wasn't pretty.

Labour was sliding towards the low 20s, just two months before election day. His personal ratings were below 10 per cent and, although he was not actively disliked by voters, the phone was off the hook. People just weren't listening anymore.

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Little had come to a stark realisation. "We are in a hole," he said. "And I know I cannot get us out of it. I may have a responsibility to stand down as leader."

This was not an easy decision to ponder. Little had worked tirelessly for years to build Labour back from the tragic defeats and internal divisions of 2011 and 2014. His face was on election billboards all over the country. And it was not clear that a leadership change would be well-received by voters so close to an election.

But over the coming days, and after a series of honest discussions with his colleagues, Little came to the brutal but ultimately correct decision to stand down and pass the baton to his popular deputy, Jacinda Ardern.

Labour leader Andrew Little leaving after announcing his resignation at Parliament. File photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour leader Andrew Little leaving after announcing his resignation at Parliament. File photo / Mark Mitchell

In doing so, he ensured a bloodless transfer of power and maintained the party unity he had worked so hard to build. The party unified behind Ardern, ran the campaign of a lifetime, and the rest is history.

Which brings us to Simon Bridges and the present day.

Marx said that history repeats itself; first as tragedy, then as farce. So it is with Simon Bridges, who faces a challenge very similar to Andrew Little's, but who has chosen a very different path.

Rather than resolve the leadership issue behind closed doors, Bridges has taken the extraordinary and possibly disastrous step of publicly provoking a leadership challenge just months out from an election.

In the face of a brewing leadership challenge from senior MPs Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye, Bridges announced their leadership challenge for them, stated his intention to fight on and then brought forward a leadership vote for Friday.

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Depending on the results of that vote, which by all accounts will be knife-edge, it is possible we may look back at Bridges' decision and say it was the bold decision that saved his leadership.

But the question Bridges must ask himself is this: even if he does save his leadership, what exactly has he won if he's had to burn down his own party in order to save himself?

We know that Bridges is deeply unpopular. This was already the case before Covid-19. His conduct during this crisis, which has been seen as overly negative and political, has put him fatally offside with the public and dropped his preferred PM rating to 4.5 per cent in the most recent public poll - a low not seen in modern New Zealand history.

The National Party under his leadership is polling just over 30 per cent. Given National has had bedrock support of around 40 per cent ever since Don Brash consolidated the centre-right voter under National, this suggests even among National's most loyal and long-term supporters one in four have switched to Ardern's Labour Party in recent months.

This is not something Bridges can pretend has no relation to his conduct during the Covid-19 crisis and the public's verdict on his suitability for high office.

This would all be bad enough in itself and a reason to step down.

But Bridges' decision to blow open National's internal divisions surely makes his candidacy for Prime Minister impossible.

Neale Jones. Photo / supplied
Neale Jones. Photo / supplied

Voters take an extremely dim view of party disunity. This is why it was a major priority for Labour leading into the 2017 election to fix the disunity that had made the party unelectable in 2011 and 2014.

Quite rightly, voters ask: how, if a party cannot run itself, can it expect to run the country?

Just as crucially, they ask: why should they support a party's leader to be Prime Minister
when even his own colleagues don't think he's up to the job?

If Bridges is successful on Friday, he will have no choice but to send Muller and Kaye to the back benches, as David Shearer did to David Cunliffe after his unsuccessful leadership challenge in 2012.

There may be other casualties, and no doubt recriminations - such as Hamilton East MP David Bennett whose act of disloyalty in emailing a member of the public confirming attempts to roll Bridges will not have gone unnoticed.

For National, regardless of the outcome on Friday, the wound Bridges' actions has opened is likely to fester for years to come.

The roles of the two major parties have been reversed: John Key's place has been taken by Ardern and National has become the squabbling, divided and incoherent opposition.

National have Bridges to thank for this predicament. Labour have Little to thank for not going down this path.

Sometimes, true leadership means knowing when you've come to the end of the road.

• Neale Jones is former chief of staff to Andrew Little and Jacinda Ardern. He is now director of Capital Government Relations.