There is a revealing anecdote in Simon Bridges’ book, “National Identity”, about his time at the University of Auckland Law School.
The school has been something of a cradle for National Party politicians; Jim McLay, Paul East, Doug Graham, Murray McCully, Wayne Mapp and, of course, Bridges, all graduated from it.
But he was different.
Sometime in the late 90s, there was a function at the law school to meet the Governor-General, the distinguished former Judge and pillar of the Wellington establishment, Sir Michael Hardie Boys.
Bridges “bowled up to him bold as brass” and “talked to him like he was a mate on a Friday night down at Haddad’s, a local Westie burger and kebab joint.”
“He turned his back on me like I’d shat on his shoe, and I won’t easily forget how I felt at that moment and for a time after<‘ he writes in his book.
“I was a loser from Te Atatu, and I did not belong there.”
Until he got to a point where he was a successful lawyer, he “sometimes felt a nagging sense of what many women in corporate life feel: imposter syndrome. I was a brown uncouth Westie. I didn’t fit in.”
It has never quite left him; what may be a real chip on his shoulder about where he has come from.
It appeared again when he arrived at St Catherine’s College in Oxford to do his post-graduate law degree.
The first time he went into the College, he found the porter was very standoffish.
“There is a snobbishness and sense of superiority,” he told POLITIK.
But at Oxford, he was beginning to learn how to handle it.
“I think I was okay, though, because whilst I talk with the Kiwi twang that everyone knows and I wasn’t part of any sort of recognisable upper class in the UK, I was a bit older; I had some self-confidence, and I felt intellectually, rightly or wrongly that I could foot it.”
And though he is an enthusiastic anglophile (he calls it a cringe) and his wife is English, it was Oxford, ironically, which drove him back to New Zealand and to not only take up the law as a profession but to begin to get serious about the politics he had started to get involved in as a university student.
Nevertheless even though he had married a British fellow student, Natalie, he felt a strong pull back to New Zealand.
Part of that pull was that he missed the beaches and bush of New Zealand, but there was force dragging him home.
That was his own family background from his father, who he says was distant, but who was an accountant turned Baptist pastor and his mother, a private school educated school teacher who both taught him that there was more to life than beaches.
“I do think that I am hard-wired to have a sense of service,” he said.
“People can psychoanalyse. Maybe it’s because I’m seeking approval from someone or something, I don’t know.
“But I do think watching my father in church life, although he was a very distant father, he was a very powerful role model.
“My mother was a teacher. There was a sense that it was noble to be in something like politics.”
But though it was noble, what was not evident in the early stages of his career was why he was in politics even after he won Tauranga for National.
In part, that may have been because although he had risen to the top of the Young Nationals and become a Crown Prosecutor in Tauranga, he still felt that chip nagging away on his shoulder.
He most keenly feels it when he believes he is being dismissed because he is Maori.
In mid-summer, some time in the early 2020s, he got a fever and decided to go to the doctor. He was at Mt Maunganui, suntanned, unshaven and dressed in a hoodie.
The Pakeha doctor told him he was wasting his time.
“Didn’t he know who I was?” he writes.
“At that time, I was a hotshot lawyer, one of the best—the youngest senior Crown counsel in our country.
“Police and lawyers deferred to me, and when I was in court, people listened. I had degrees up the wazoo, including a Master’s from Oxford University.
“And then it dawned on me. He was treating me like a bloody Maori.”
He is Maori; he knows enough of his whakapapa to know which marae his hapu belong to, and he says he and his children feel a real sense of belonging when they visit.
But he also insists that he is only part Maori.
“I think it makes some difference. I don’t want to somehow frame itself as exceptional. I think much of what I’m talking about in the book is very ordinary,” he said.
“I think there are hundreds of thousands of Maori like me who will have the same sort of story, and they are on the general roll if you want to think about it in a political sense.
“They’re not Rawiri Waititi kind of Maori.
“I think that’s true about my being. There are hundreds of thousands of people from Porirua or East Christchurch who have had a very similar background.”
At school, he told people he was one-eighth Maori, “probably just my feet”.
That led to him being called “nigger toes” by one schoolmate.
But his feeling that he is an outsider defines his politics.
“I think some of my colleagues, particularly in government, can have a sense that everything’s as it should be because we’re in power, and you know, it’s all okay, chaps.
And whilst I’m a conservative, that’s not my position.
“I look at things and believe things aren’t how they should be.
“This might just might come back to bite me. I know some people don’t like it, but, you know, sometimes I see a world that has its injustices and problems and unfairness.
“Some might say, that sounds a bit leftist.
“But you know, that’s true of the conclusions I’ve come to from quite a young age; they tend to be conclusions around being on the right of politics.”
Maybe, he wonders, it was the protestant ethic of his father while his mother, he thinks, was a soft Labour voter.
Certainly, from a young age, he read political books, listened to talkback radio, watched TV current affairs and became something of a political junkie. But he never doubted that he was on the right, not the left. He likes to say it is the protestant work ethic that inspires him.
But there is one more important element that makes up what he calls the mixture of contradictions, values and views that makes up what he admits is a complicated character, or as he puts it, “a complicated rooster.”
He is a practising Christian. These days he has moved further across the protestant spectrum from his Baptist upbringing to what he says is a “happy clapper” evangelical church in Tauranga.
But though he tends to take a conservative position on conscience votes, and though he in private seems particularly critical of some of the liberals in the National Caucus, that may stem as much from their role in ending his leadership as anything else.
He drinks, and though he says he is an introvert he can be gregarious at the parties that happen around Parliament. He seems to have a wide range of friends and contacts but he can be careless such as his embrace of Jami-Lee Ross as a close confidant.
He says his Christianity has always been part of his life but is separate from his political life.
“I think what’s true is I also guess that there is a requirement for what I would call modesty about religion and politics,” he said.
“I’m not a Christian politician. I’m not inspired by God.
“It doesn’t, particularly inform my day to day politics.
“I think you could be close to Marxism on the basis of some parts of the Bible or a US-style moral conservative. And we so choose.
“And I’m not kind of trying to make that case.”
But there is something almost biblical about what has happened to him.
After he was voted out as National leader in what may have been a tight contest in May last year, he went through a long dark night of the soul. It hurt. The book, with its ruthless self-examination, is a product of that. Then he retreated and wrote his book.
It was a cathartic experience. But now he is back on the road promoting it, speaking to National Party branches and everywhere. it seems, in the media.
In a sense, he could be seen to have gone through what evangelical scholars call a “wilderness experience” such a that of St Paul, who, after he saw the light on the road to Damascus, spent a considerable time in the Arabian desert before returning to begin his lifelong ministry to establish Christianity around the eastern Mediterranean.
the book is as much a political manifesto as it is a memoir or light hearted look at politics and it is provoking the quesiton; could he be the answer to National’s dire polling and low morale.
The question some of the most senior members of the National party are now asking is whether Bridges’ period away from the leadership has been sufficiently cleansing for him to return as leader, better prepared for the job and willing to unite the Caucus and party.
But if he were to return he would be a different Simon bridges to the won the aprty tossed out last year.
Then one of the questions his critics asked was whether he believed in anything other than trying to get on the 6.00 p.m. TV news.
But now, after his period in the wilderness, he has reached a different philosophical point to many of his colleagues. He believes there is a global trend for conservative parties to draw more of their support from traditional working-class electorates.
“It’s something I reflect on in the book; when I talk about class, we are in quite a remarkable time,” he said.
“We have the right moving more working class, and the left, in a sense, is getting those more urban liberal intelligentsia votes.”
That argument makes the “complicated rooster” from Te Atatu even more relevant.
the “new right” constituency is people like him.
He has consistently said he is not seeking the leadership, but that is the wrong question to ask him.
He has been reading political biographies. One is John Howard’s “Lazarus Rising”. Howard details how the Australian Liberal Party heavyweights came to him in 1994, proposing that he take over from Alexander Downer, who was struggling.
Howard was equivocal. He would accept the role he had lost five years earlier, provided he was unopposed.
Bridges has also been reading a biography of former Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe; he too came back in 2012 after losing the Prime Ministership in 2007.
So, as the party’s polls continue to plummet, would he consider a proposal like the one made to Howard.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“I’ll probably regret giving you that answer, but I don’t know.”
He warns not to read too much into the book.
“The truth is, is just as I say in the conclusion.
“I don’t know what the future has in store for me.
“I don’t want to try and sound coy and say I’m getting out of politics. I still want to be in public life.
“I do enjoy it and find it very satisfying.
“But just how that looks, I don’t know exactly.”
He refers to Abe and the biography he is reading.
“One of the chapters is called the Comeback Kid where he had had a disastrous time as Prime Minister and then came back and was a long term one.
“I don’t have an intention to replace the leadership of the National Party.
“It’s as I say; I don’t know exactly what the future holds.”
That’s an answer for a journalist. Behind the scenes, he is at least engaging in conversations about what could be or might be. But it is clear he is playing his cards close to his chest.
Some think that may be because he realises leading the National Party into the next election could be a suicide mission. Better to wait for the next leader to fail and then take over to win in 2026 and become Prime Minister.
Or it may be because the pain of the loss is still too raw, and the journey of self-examination that he has begun may still have some distance to go.
But his book and his unique take on being a New Zealander now make him one of the major thinkers in Parliament.
The odds are that sooner or later, he will return from his desert wilderness and that the cock could well crow again.