National Leader Simon Bridges last night seized the initiative and possibly saved his leadership after Jami Lee Ross failed to deliver the smoking gun he promised would show Bridges had ordered an illegal campaign funding declaration.
Any doubts caucus members may have had after his shaky performance responding to Ross’s stream of allegations on Tuesday went yesterday in the face of the vengefulness of Ross’s attacks and Bridges tough hardline response at a press conference last night.
It wasn’t so much that Ross failed to deliver; it was more Bridges’ response which looks like defining the way this saga unfolds from now on.
Even though the recorded call that Ross took to the police had Bridges make uncomplimentary comments about one caucus member and included a frank discussion about the relative merits of various ethnic candidates; his press conference defending it and attacking Ross was what the caucus had been waiting for.
MPs say that they must now maintain their unity in the face of what they believe are extraordinary attacks.
One MP, who had supported Amy Adams for the leadership, told POLITIK last night that they believed dealing with Ross had made Bridges stronger and that he had now grown into the leadership.
Last night Bridges called Ross a liar, a blackmailer, disloyal and a terrible person.
“I sleep well at night because I have got my integrity,” he said.
“I know right from wrong.
“I don’t muck around with electoral law.
“I believe in justice and the rule of the law, things, I think we would have to say right now, Jami Lee Ross just doesn’t.”
As for Ross, he said: “he’s a terrible person, we’re going to move on and focus on the things that matter to Kiwis.”
The downside was that Bridges called West Coast list MP, Maureen Pugh, “fucking useless” and agreed with Ross that David Carter, Chris Finlayson and Nickey Wagener “don’t really need to hang around.”
Though he did add: “But we don’t want them to go this year though.”
It is impossible to overstate the anger both within National’s caucus and the party at large over Ross’s claim that Bridges is corrupt.
POLITIK has spoken to a wide range of Nats; a former leader, a former party director, members of the board, electorate chairs, campaign chairs along with a number of MPs, some on the front bench, some on the back.
All are incensed by Ross and though many believe he has mental health problems they are not willing to give him any leeway over his comments and his promise to continue to release recordings of his conversations with Bridges.
It has become a battle to the political death between Bridges and Ross and Bridges showed last night that he is up for it.
One of the party’s most senior MPs last night told POLITIK that Bridges comments might have ruffled a few feathers …”but only slightly.”
“There is very deep anger at the whole notion of taping a conversation like that,” he said.
Bridges said Ross had deliberately tried to set him up.
“I think he has been recording me, and actually potentially many other members of Parliament, for a long time.
“That is a gross breach of trust.
“I think it speaks a lot about him and not anyone else.
“The reality is today he did his worst, and he is thoroughly discredited.
“He is wrong in every regard around electoral laws.
“He has defamed me, and he has lied.
“Nothing he says stacks up.”
But there are aspects of the conversation that raise some questions.
The most important is the relationship between the Chinese community and political parties over donations.
The businessman who gathered together the money for the donation, Yikun Zhang,until recently held positions with a Chinese Communist Party body in China, the Standing Committee of the Hainan Provincial CPPCC.
That connection has raised questions as to whether he is actually funnelling Chinese Government money to the National Party.
Asked about this yesterday, Bridges said that if there were issues or they were brought to the party’s attention, they would be something that they would not just be mindful of but be taken very seriously into account.
There was also a discussion on the tape about placing ethnic candidates on National’s list.
Obviously, Zhang had suggested to Ross that in return for the donation they should get another Chinese high up the National list.
Bridges: “I mean, it’s like all these things, it’s bloody hard. You’ve only got so much space. Depends where we’re polling, you know? All that sort of thing…two Chinese would be nice, but would it be one Chinese or one Filipino? What do we do?”
Ross: ”Two Chinese would be more valuable than two Indians, I have to say.”
Bridges: “Which is what we’ve got at the moment, right? Your problem there is you end up in a shitfight because you’ve got a list MP – you’ve got two list MPs – it’s a pretty mercenary cull – sitting MPs, all that shit. “
That hardly sounds as though Bridges went along with Ross’s comments. MPs spoken to by POLITIK believe the recording shows that Ross was trying to set Bridges up but failed.
The party now must look to the by-election which many concede will be a referendum, on Bridges’ leadership.
Ross has confirmed today that he will have the “Dirty Politics” operative, Simon Lusk assisting him.
Lusk has long had an association with Ross and was his paid consultant assisting him get the National nomination in 2011.
The Whaleoil website today quotes Lusk as saying: “If National had a half competent leader who was even moderately popular they would be significantly higher in the polls . . .”
Bridges will be in the Hawke’s Bay today; what Ross will do is unknown, but the odds are that he will now start drip feeding his recordings of Bridges and possibly other National politicians as he tries to embarrass the party going into the by-election.
But for now anyway the National Party has a strategy; stay united, support the leader and look beyond the immediate crisis.