Slowly, day by day, Simon Bridges has managed to turn a trivial inconsequential leak into a test of his leadership of National.
It’s not a test in the sense of anyone challenging him; rather it is one of those events which should he stumble down the track will be looked back on as an early indicator that he was not up to the job.
And as well as doing that he and some of his senior MPs are setting themselves up for a full-on clash with Speaker Trevor Mallard.
The original leak, of Bridges’ expenditure on crown cars, was a minor matter.
The information (which it turned out was incorrect anyway) was about to be released publicly.
It was not classified material. It was the kind of information which those who possess it are likely to leak on an almost daily basis around Parliament.
Newshub beat it up and gave it a weight it never deserved.
But almost immediately Bridges and those close to him set out on a witch hunt ending up by blaming Speaker Trevor Mallard for the leak because the material originally emanated from Parliamentary Services for which Mallard is responsible.
POLITIK has learned that Bridges told several people that he interviewed Mallard and could tell from his experience as a crown prosecutor, by Mallard’s body language, that he was guilty.
(Bridges says this claim is false)
Tweets began to appear from National insiders suggesting Mallard was the leaker.
On August 14, a former political advisor to Todd McClay, Hamish Price, tweeted: “Hypothetically, if a Speaker were found to have been responsible for the leak of such a document, I can see no circumstance in which that Speaker could survive a confidence vote. Not even @NZGreens could vote for him.”
(This story has been changed to remove a claim that Simon Bridges questioned MP Judith Collins about the leak. She has emphatically denied that meeting took place.)
Mallard is not saying anything. He is on a cycling holiday in Cornwall.
However, he was always likely to be suspected by National who clearly have it in for him because of the more assertive way he runs Question Time.
He and National’s Shadow Leader Gerry Brownlee were supposed to have met during the last recess to try and calm things down.
But Brownlee did not take up Mallard’s offer to meet.
When he returns he sure to face an antagonistic reception from National.
Bridges said at his press conference last Friday that the Police believed that the author of a text message to himself, Mallard and Newshub was the leaker.
However, they would not divulge that person’s name to him for privacy reason even though the person claimed to have inside knowledge of National Party caucus meetings.
Despite this, Bridges continued to point the finger at Parliamentary Services (and therefore Mallard) as one of a number of possible sources of the original leak during his lengthy press conference on Friday.
“There has been some comment about this person identifying that they were in the National Party caucus,” he said.
“There is a range of credible scenarios that means I really cannot say whether they were or they weren’t a National MP, another MP; someone in Parliamentary services or indeed wider than that.”
What has increased the tension between Mallard and Bridges is the Speaker’decision to call off the inquiry by QC, Michael Heron, into the original leak.
“It has now been confirmed to me that the person who leaked the details of the expenses and the texter is the same person,” said Mallard on Friday.
“He or she has details of events that it is unlikely anyone outside the National Party would be privy to.
“I have discussed my decision with Hon Simon Bridges.
“He disagrees with it.
“He wants the inquiry to continue.
“I have indicated to him that the Parliamentary Service will cooperate if he decides that he wants to proceed with an investigation and appropriate consents from MPs are in place.
“The general manager will make any relevant staff emails available.”
The NZ Herald has reported Bridges as saying that “Nothing had changed fundamentally on the Friday other than that the Prime Minister said it was an internal matter for the National Party.”
“Surprise, surprise, Trevor Mallard then changed his position.
“I know of nothing that gives any good reason for his change unless the Prime Minister or he knows something we don’t and if they do, they should be sharing it with the National Party.
“I believe he is obliged as Parliament’s Speaker, not a partisan one, to tell us what he knows unless there is an exceptional reason not to.”
This escalation of tension between the Opposition and the Speaker is in itself surprising.
Alleging that the Speaker is partisan is a serious issue and could well see Bridges face some sort of sanction when Parliament resumes.
But again, even if National picks up on some of the wilder talk among people close to it and moves a motion of no confidence in Mallard, the motion would not succeed.
Bridges and his party look to have painted themselves into a corner.
Partly that is because an inquiry by the Opposition Leader is unlikely to have the clout to conduct investigations outside the National caucus which means that unless the leaker is a National MP or staff member, the issue will remain unresolved.
Outside the National party office suite at Parliamen response to Bridges’ predicament has been largely negative in weekend political columns and an editorial in “The Herald.”
His problem now is that with no real way of identifying the leaker the issue is likely to remain unresolved and he will appear to have failed.
Not a good look for a new leader struggling to gain traction in the polls.