Inevitably Simon Bridges’ resignation yesterday will be seen as a reflection on his relationship with National’s leadership team; Christopher Luxon, Nicola Willis and Chris Bishop.
Resigning after just over three months of the new leadership team is hardly a vote of confidence.
Bridges was never going to be close to Willis and Bishop, who plotted his overthrow as leader in 2020 and replaced him with Todd Muller.
And it may be that he felt his influence over Luxon was limited by their proximity to the leader.
But no party leader can afford to be seen to be losing such a senior and influential figure as Bridges midway through a Parliamentary term.
That he has decided to go has raised questions among some in the caucus about whether conservatives like him are slowly being squeezed out of decision making.
There are also suggestions that he was frustrated with the way things were being run under Luxon, even that he was unhappy with some staff appointments.
But it also seems the forces behind his decision may have been pull as much as push.
POLITIK understands he will shift to Auckland to take up a business appointment.
Nevertheless, back in Tauranga, his friends did not see his decision coming.
Long-time friend and former National Party official, Andrew von Dadelszen, told POLITIK that when Bridges came to tell him about his decision at the weekend, it was more than a surprise.
“I was shocked,” he said.
Von Dadelszen’s wife Maree is Bridges’ electorate agent.
“We thought he might be thinking about going on the list, so we thought something was up.
“But what it was shocked us.”
Von Dadelszen said he had known Bridges for 14 years.
“I can only say really great things about him,” he said.
“He is going out with absolute dignity.
“After 14 years, I can’t speak highly enough of him, to be honest.”
Luxon himself described Bridges as “a trusted advisor and confidant.”
“I am going to personally miss his contribution to the National Party caucus,” he said.
Luxon’s first big challenge will be to find a new finance spokesperson. Bridges has shown that this post requires, above all, political smarts, which would suggest that Chris Bishop would be the most likely to take over, as much as Bridges might find that distasteful.
The next issue is who is going to be the voice for the conservatives in Luxon’s ear and will he listen to them.
Shane Reti is a conservative and ranked five in the caucus, but he appears preoccupied with health issues. Louise Upston is also a conservative and has some status already through her role overseeing policy development. She could now find herself in the inner circle.
The other big issue for the party as a whole will be the Tauranga by-election.
The first task will be to find a candidate, and because the electorate is one of National’s top three in terms of membership, this is a decision that will be very much the property of the local members.
The National Party board is likely to find it has limited influence over the selection.
That may be a downside, but the upside is that the electorate is said to have plenty of money, with some wealthy donors standing in the background, ready to help if needed.
The by-election is likely to be dominated by a huge local issue; the decision last week by Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta to extend the term of the Tauranga City Council Commission for another two years. New Commissioners will be appointed in October.
Mahuta might also find herself the focus of debate within the electorate over Three Waters, particularly the co-governance proposals.
Tauranga has a reputation as a city with conservative views on race relations; the fact that it is a retirement haven with 24.3% of its population receiving NZ Superannuation might explain that.
That may make a return as a candidate all the more attractive to former Tauranga MP and NZ First Leader Winston Peters. However the party has been on a slow downward slide, with its party vote in the electorate getting only 3.6 per cent at the last election with its candidate. And it’s nearly 20 years since Peters got over 50 per cent in the electorate vote there.
But it is clear that Peters and the de facto deputy leader, Shane Jones, see the growing debate over co-governance as an area that they can score political points.
In an Opinion piece yesterday in the NZ Herald, Jones wrote: “The public does not recall giving the Labour Party permission to impose its Treaty of Waitangi co-governance master plan. A dogma that thrives where visibility is weak, debates are shallow, and agendas are murky.”
National will lose a lot with Bridges’ departure.
His book “National Identity” used self-deprecating humour to raise substantial issues about race, religion and education and the future direction of a conservative centre-right party.
It also detailed his lifelong involvement as a “political junkie”,; someone who would rather read a book on politics than watch a rugby game.
Though he has a (not undeserved) reputation as something of a larrikin, he has also begun to emerge as one of the real intellects in his party.
He will leave a number of unanswered questions.
Whether he would have been appointed Finance Minister in a Luxon government is unclear.
What if Luxon fails at the next election; would Bridges have led the party to victory in 2026.
But perhaps most importantly, what will happen to the conservatives within the caucus now.