John Armstrong's opinion: Media script requires Bridges to end up as dog tucker

The media have proclaimed Simon Bridges to be dog tucker. Having issued that decree, the media will do its darnedest to make sure he does become exactly that - dog tucker.

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The National MP ranked higher than him on a recent poll, but doesn’t have her eye on the “toughest job” in politics, she says. Source: 1 NEWS

That is the ugly truth now confronting Bridges in his continuing struggle to keep his leadership of the National Party intact and alive.

It might seem unfair. It will likely be regarded in National quarters as irrefutable evidence of media bias.

It is unfair. Some pundits had made up their minds that Bridges was the wrong person to lead National within weeks of him securing the job. Those verdicts were quickly followed by bold predictions that it would not be long before he was rolled by his fellow MPs.

No account was taken of the difficulty of taking over a political party which has been thrown into the irrelevance of Opposition after having called the shots from the Government benches in Parliament for nigh on a decade.

No account was taken of the no small matter of who best should replace Bridges. That the list of possible alternatives was limited to Judith Collins - the Lady Macbeth of New Zealand politics but without the compassion - should have been sufficient to answer the question.

The predictions of Bridges’ demise seemed based more on being able to claim to be the first to have forecasted it.

It is not media bias at work here, however. When the media hunts as a pack - as is the case with Bridges - it is colour blind.

It is not fussy about where it feeds. It is not fussy whether the victim comes with a blue or a red tag. If you doubt that just ask Andrew Little.

That the media are so rabid is simply the consequence of the adversarial nature of politics. The media are consumed with what is going wrong rather than what any government or Opposition party might be getting right.

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The National Party leader attended his first Big Gay Out event over the weekend. Source: Breakfast

The hunt is constant for inconsistency, gaffes, blunders, infighting and so on. Negativity rules, OK.

Despite its efforts, the media claim few scalps by their devices alone. They are instead vultures hovering over the road-kill offered up in
the preferred prime minister ratings in what is now a sporadic number of polls.

That there are now only two news organisations commissioning such voter surveys - and at three-monthly intervals - means discerning a trend can be virtually impossible.

To draw conclusions from the surge in backing for Labour and decline in support for National registered by the Newshub Reid-Research poll is folly.

Because Bridges’ survival as leader is contingent on the level of support for National, it is proving too tempting for some commentators to ignore those ratings, however.

Likewise the preferred prime minister ratings. That Collins has overhauled Bridges was used to reinforce the notion that Collins is now a viable candidate for the leadership — and that Bridges is not.

In fact, it could be argued that the polling demonstrated that Collins is just as unpopular as Bridges. But that does not sit comfortably with a script which requires the latter to end up as dead meat.

What the preferred prime minister ratings offer the media is not just winners, but more importantly losers.

Once you are deemed to be a loser by the media, that becomes a mindset which is near impossible to erase.

The loser falls victim to a feeding frenzy - and there can only be one outcome from that.

No matter that there may be valid reason for National MPs not to be seen to be panicking by dumping Bridges.

One day, however, the National caucus will have to determine whether the current leader’s predicament is ever going to improve or whether it will just keep getting worse.

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The National Party leader’s comments comes as Air NZ flight was denied entry into China on February 10. Source: Breakfast

This week that day drew just that much closer.

Bridges’ troubles evoke memories of Jim McLay’s stint as National’s leader back in the 1980s - memories which are best buried as soon as they arise.

McLay currently holds the unfortunate record for being the shortest serving leader in the party’s history. It is a record Bridges is in danger of breaking.

McLay was also an example of an Opposition party leader being trapped in a vicious cycle in which whatever he did just made things worse for him.

His press conferences became excruciating to observe as the Press Gallery tortured and tormented him in what amounted to blood sport.

Things have not reached that stage in Bridges’ case - at least not yet.

Can Bridges’ survive? It would help his cause considerably if he could land a major hit on the Prime Minister, rather than just the occasional pinprick.

His ability to make an impact is in part down to a dilemma he faces. To be seen to be making a difference, he needs to come up with something different and distinctive policy-wise.

Any divergence, however, from the centrist ethos of the John Key-Bill English era risks alienating the many “soft” National voters who were drawn to the party by the pragmatism and relative moderation exhibited by Bridges’ two immediate predecessors.

Bridges thus has to proceed with caution. Recasting National in his mould will take time. But time is a commodity he simply does not have.

Despite that, there have been signs as the new political year kicked into motion of a sharper, more direct and less ambiguous Bridges.

The reviews of his performance have generally been positive. Then came Monday’s poll.

It must have felt like being struck by a tonne of bricks. You could read as much from the expression on Bridges’ face.

Once again, he was on the defensive. Once again, he was being forced to make what amounted to empty assurances that his leadership of National was safe.

Once again, it was a few short steps forward and then one large one backwards.

Once again, it was Groundhog Day.