The impossibility of being Simon Bridges

It's not slushies or Judith Collins doing for Simon Bridges. The fact is that he was the longest of long shots when he took the reins and events tell us he'd need a miracle from here

The questions are being asked. Is Simon Bridges coming to the end of his run as National's leader? Is he going to be forced to walk the plank? The answer of course, is yes. Because it has always been yes. But it's unlikely to be imminent.

The real question around Bridges' demisd has never been if, it's been when. From the start Bridges was on a Mission Nigh-Impossible and there has been little to no indication in the 14 months he has been leader that he is the Ethan Hunt of New Zealand politics.

It's tempting to talk about slushies, after his much-mocked attack on Corrections' million dollar drinks bill, and Judith Collins. But just as the Night King's demise at the hand of Arya Stark goes back seasons, so Bridge's fate has been all-but determined for some time.

Bridges task as leader has been immensely difficult, coming into the leadership at the bottom of the cycle for National, straight after the dominance of the Key-English years. You might ask if you can really talk about a party polling in the mid-40s as at the bottom of a cycle. True, National can and probably will go lower before it rises again. But that, in a sense, has made it harder. Bridges has not had a crisis to justify significant change or the scope to put his mark on the party. He has had to deal with a large number of experienced but deflated MPs and I'm sure a frustrating amount of his time will have been taken up with grief management.

Some of the hurdles Bridges has struggled to clamber over have been thrust in front of him. Jacinda Ardern has a passionate support base and the manner in which she came to power makes her a formidable opponent. The economy here and overseas is stable. The Christchurch mosque attacks, while hideous, allowed Ardern to shine here and on the world stage, at a time when Labour was looking ungainly on some of its core policies, such as housing, education and tax reform. Unfortunately for Bridges, he had some of his best moment as leader post-Christchurch, but they were lost in the shadow's outside the glow of Ardern's dazzling compassion.

His odds were long to start with; events dear boy, have stretched them to almost breaking point.

On the other hand, the Tauranga MP has done himself few favours. His questionable political instincts were underlined by the MPs expenses saga and his ill-starred inquiry into what was a minor issue that would have faded quickly. Bridges had spent a whopping $113,000 on limos and hotels in three months, as he travelled the country on a listening tour. Rather than let it die down, he blew on the flame with an internal inquiry that led, in part, to Jami-Lee Ross' brutal criticism of Nationals' leadership. Bridges was a deer in the headlights of Ross' attacks and was quickly defined by them. 

That, in turn, led to another inquiry, this time whether his party's culture made sure women were safe. "It was the right thing to do," he said. The review is complete, but bizarrely Bridges won't say who did the work, won't commit to releasing more than a summary, can't say if any women MPs spoke to the reviewer and hasn't read it yet. 

At the same time he insists the party's culture is "strong and positive". 

It's a typical Bridges muddle. In too many political plays, he's shown little skill at seeing the endgame. Looking back over his 14 months in charge, it's hard to point to a success that he can claim, a narrative that he has defined or a new policy that he has sparked. 

The only significant policy idea he has announced is to index taxes to inflation; bread and butter stuff for a centre-right party, but hardly a foundation for a Bridges Doctrine.

Lest we forget, the expenses and Ross troubles stemmed from a listening tour on which he was meant to be taking the pulse of the nation. The best way to have dealt with the spending questions would have been to say 'I travelled and listened and now here is what the Simon Bridges National Party stands for'. Yet nine months on we're yet to see any policy results of all that listening.

This, at a time when he should have known he had to go big or go home.

Why? Because he's a first term Opposition Leader up against a first term Prime Minister. And if New Zealand's political history tells you anything, it's just how impossible it is to win from that starting position.

Going back to the 19th century, no first term Opposition leader has been able to beat a victorious first term Prime Minister. Not one. The closest we have come is Sir Robert Muldoon's victory in 1975. He only became National's leader in 1974 and won in 1975. But it took the death of Prime Minister Norm Kirk to open the door to Muldoon. Muldoon did not beat the Labour leader who won the previous election, but rather Bill Rowling.

Assuming Ardern survives to fight the 2020 election, a Bridges victory would be unprecedented in New Zealand's history.

So while political observers point to this slushy or that poll as the tipping point for the Bridges leadership, the fact is that his chances of being the next National Prime Minister were miniscule from the start. It would have taken a miracle 14 months ago; he'd need an even bigger one now.

Does that mean he will be gone before the winter is out? To answer that you have to ask what good it would do for anyone seeking to replace him. The next election is still around 18 months away, Ardern is a global heavyweight and Labour has just taken the whacking stick that was Capital Gains Tax out of National's hands. And while National remains i the 40 any coup against Bridges would look self-serving, rather than in the interest of party and country.

So for now the clock keep slowly winding down for Bridges, as we wait to find out when – not if – he will be removed from the leadership.