Make or break year for Simon Bridges

It’s difficult taking over leadership of a political party, especially one of the two parties, and especially after previous long term popular leadership.

Labour had a lot of trouble finding a popular leader after Helen Clark left after losing the 2008 election. They went through four struggling leaders before circumstances forced a shock shift to Jacinda Ardern, who benefited from an impressive first impression and a short campaign – and then from the support of Winston Peters.

Bill English was a capable replacement for John Key, but was saddled with the difficulty of holding onto power after three terms in Government, a dearth of parties they could try to form coalitions with, and had to compete with the mass of media coverage that helped the sudden rise of Ardern.

English stepped down and National chose Simon Bridges to lead them and to lead the Opposition, both big challenges.

In his nearly a year as National’s leader Bridges has struggled to impress or appeal. Overall there has been little praise and a lot of criticism, and that that sums up my impression of him. He often doesn’t come across well in media. He has had a bit of barking-at-cars syndrome. And I don’t like some of his policy choices, like on drug law reform, abortion and euthanasia (these should be conscience votes but a leader can influence his party MPs).

The only major plus is that while Bridges has failed to fire in ‘preferred Prime Minister’ polls his party support has mostly held up surprisingly well. This may be despite him rather than due to his leadership.

One of Bridges’ biggest practical problems is it seems that most media have started to write him off, which like it or not can have a significant influence.

He has to start the year (later this month) with, somehow, a new outlook, a new plan, and a better way of delivery his messages. It’s hard for a politician to turn around a negative image, but it can be done, as Helen Clark proved. But that was last century. The media and the social media pundits demand instant success or the knives and pens and keyboards are quickly sharpened.

I’m not ready to write Bridges off yet. He and his advisers must be aware of his problems, and must be trying to work out how to address them and turn things around. So Bridges may take a new approach this year – if he does it will take time to prove whether it might work for him or not.

But if he continues much the same as last year then I think he is not going to cut it, and if he doesn’t step down for the good of the party he may be pushed.

This year is probably make or break for Bridges.