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John Armstrong's opinion: National Party lacks leadership options if Simon Bridges is rolled

The vultures currently circling above Simon Bridges in anticipation of him soon becoming road-kill on the perilous journey to be National’s next prime minister need to answer one obvious and unavoidable question.

Mr Bridges said if the leaker is not a National MP or staffer, they may not be found. Source: 1 NEWS

If they don’t think Bridges is the right person to lead the National Party from hereon and through the next election campaign, then they need to specify who should be installed as his replacement.

Should it be Amy Adams? You cannot be serious.

In the few short months since National’s 56-strong caucus conducted the leadership ballot which saw Bridges head off the Selwyn MP,  Adams has been missing in action.

She has failed to rise to the challenges of becoming National’s finance spokeswoman. She deserved her promotion. But she has made zero impact in her new role.

In part, her disappointing showing in what is the second most sought after job in Opposition is down to her being a victim of National’s success in managing the economy when it was in power.

The Finance Minister might now have a different name in the aftermath of last year’s election, but not much else has changed.

It has been largely business as usual. That has made it more difficult for Adams to find a target to attack.

Launching an offensive on Labour’s Grant Robertson is tricky.

If she is not careful, the current Finance Minister can claim attacking him amounts to an attack on the policies of Sir Bill English and Steven Joyce, the two National MPs who were his immediate predecessors as Finance Minister. 

That said, Adams has failed to make Labour wince on the most pressing matter which has confronted the current government, namely the slump in business confidence.

She has seemed bereft of ideas as to how to make the most of this political gift.

Overall, Adams has looked one-dimensional, blinkered and inflexible. She is finding Opposition a real struggle. 

Her fellow National MPs accordingly could not be confident that she could make a better fist of the job of leader than Bridges.

Indeed, she might turn out to be worse.

What about Judith Collins? Never say never in politics. But Collins is very much the rainy day option to be saved for a very rainy day.

She was reportedly trounced in February’s leadership ballot. That she had meagre support was confirmed by her going outside the caucus to harness public opinion behind her in the vain hope that would put pressure on those inside the caucus to back her.

Had she had the numbers to have made her a serious contender, she would have stayed mum.

Since the ballot, however, Collins has started to rate in the preferred prime minister ratings in opinion polls. She is arguably National’s strongest weapon and has been giving Phil Twyford particular grief as her party’s housing spokeswoman. 

Just at the very moment it is possible to start referring to the "new Collins", the "old Collins" comes knocking.

Her career has been punctuated with inexplicable lapses of judgment, the latest being her tweeting of an item carried by a fake news site which made false claims about France's age of consent law.

For some reason, which only she knows, Collins demanded the Prime Minister denounce the legislation. 

This episode might not have seemed like a big deal to the public. It would have been a reminder to her caucus colleagues, however, of why she can never be their leader.

Apart from matters of judgement, there is another major impediment that makes leadership of her party a no-to zone for the Papakura MP.

While she has noticeably turned down the volume of the polemic which is a big turn-off for many voters, it is too late to erase her being forever typecast as an MP who sits on National’s extreme right edge.

Even by her own admission, her installation as leader would precipitate a marked slump in National’s share of the party vote.

That currently stands at about 45 per cent.

The National MP accidentally tweeted a story from a fake news site, but says she takes the sentiment around the issue “extremely seriously”. Source: 1 NEWS

That National has continued to rack up that level of support is down to Bridges sticking pretty much to the modus operandi soothed by the Sir John Key-Sir Bill English dynasty which put moderation, consensus-building and pragmatism first and foremost, and ideology a distant second.

That approach means National is just few heartbeats from returning to power - and its MPs once more enjoying the perks and privileges which come with it.

To sight Collins is to wave goodbye to all that, even though it is odds-on that the Labour, New Zealand First and Greens governing arrangement will make it to the next election still intact.

Might Paula Bennett still be in the running?

After all, she continues to hold the post of deputy-leader, doesn’t she?

Bennett’s star has long been on the wane. At a pinch, she could serve as a temporary leader in an emergency— except to say that having a caretaker leader only delays the day when a decision has to be made — and thus has never been a goer.

What about Mark Mitchell?

The Rodney MP is still something of an unknown quantity. His public profile is sill relatively low.

But he may now head the pack of credible replacements for Bridges were the current leader to be pushed under the proverbial bus.

Mitchell’s fortunes have been on the rise for some time. Personable and affable, National’s justice and defence spokesman is held in high regard.

His competence and capability can be measured by his promotion to full Cabinet status not long after being appointed as a minister outside Cabinet.

Mitchell put a marker in the ground by making himself a contender in the leadership ballot, but pulled his candidacy at the last-minute.

Were Bridges to be rolled and replaced by Mitchell, one not insignificant drawback to the latter being elevated to the party’s most senior role is that National would be replacing like with like.

Todd McClay? The Rotorua MP has to be included on any list of possible leader’s by virtue of his front-bench ranking.

But he has never professed to have leadership ambitions. He has also been classified as being a firm Bridges’ supporter.

Overall, the absence of any obvious successor waiting for Bridges to fall over suggests that the mystery leaker of his travel expenses may have picked the wrong time to try and undermine the current leader.

Indeed, the plot may have badly back-fired. The National caucus has circled the wagons; projecting unity has become paramount.

Bridges has been heavily criticised for seeking an inquiry into the leak, thereby keeping a relatively trivial matter well and truly alive.

Had he sat back and been passive, however, he would surely have been condemned as being weak.

On his last day as Acting PM, Mr Peters said he felt sorry for the two National leaders who, he claimed, would not remain in their roles long. Source: Breakfast

Bridges is never going to win any popularity contests — especially ones which include Jacinda Ardern as a competitor.

There is something about Bridges which makes people search for reasons not to like him.

His longevity as leader hinges on factors other than an inability to win political beauty contests, however.

To a large degree, it depends on him building respect and consequently authority.

Notwithstanding further twists and turns in the saga surrounding the leak, the perpetrator has given Bridges a heaven-sent opportunity to command respect by looking tough and decisive.

Not surprisingly, he has grabbed that opportunity with both hands.