COMMENT:

National Party leader Simon Bridges is looking and sounding like a political novice but he is not. He has been nearly 10 years in Parliament and so impressed the party's previous leaders that he was brought into the Cabinet very young and rose rapidly to be entrusted with the important portfolios of energy and transport.

This year his colleagues elected him leader on a second ballot, ahead of contenders as strong as Steven Joyce and Judith Collins. So why is Bridges making such a hash of the job of Opposition leader?

His bumbling comments on the problems of National's Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross must be no less of a worry to the party than Ross' need to take a sudden extended absence from Parliament. Announcing the MP's request for leave, Bridges said Ross needed to take a few months to deal with health issues that were "serious" and "deeply personal and private".

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Ross, in his own public comments, implied his problems might not be confined to health.

He said, "There are times in your life where you have to put your own health and family first. As a husband and father I need to do that at this time." Bridges did not help matters by telling his press conference the MP's problems were "sensitive, perhaps actually embarrassing — a lot embarrassing potentially".

A competent leader of a major political party in this situation does not use words that can only worsen things for the MP and the party by leaving further questions to be answered in the fullness of time.

Perhaps Bridges was trying to offset the inevitable conjecture that Ross' departure is related to the leak of Bridges' travel expenses a few months ago, the subject of an inquiry that is expected to produce a report shortly. That saga has become a monkey on Bridges' back.

Why he ever made such an issue of the leaking of an expenses claim that was going to be made public anyway remains a mystery. Why he did not drop the subject when Speaker Trevor Mallard called off a parliamentary inquiry, having received an anonymous confession that appeared to come from a National insider, is doubly inexplicable.

Instead, Bridges has had the party commission its own inquiry by consultants PWC who have been trawling National MPs' email logs for clues to the offender. This can not end well for National.

Bridges says Ross' departure is "separate entirely" from the leak investigation, though Bridges can not know that for certain. He also stated he still does not know who the leaker is. Ross, he said, "is clear he is not the leaker".

But as our political editor Audrey Young observed yesterday, if PWC finds Ross was the likely source of the leak his departure from Parliament now will be seen as convenient. He will be on leave when the report is due in a few weeks. He will have already declared he has a personal health issue, as the anonymous confessor to Mallard did.

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The way an Opposition leader handles problems in his or her party provides an insight to their credentials for a more important job. So far, Bridges is not passing the test.