Tova O'Brien: Bridges made 'political power play for the ages', puts coup on his own terms

The AM Show 20/05/2020

Simon Bridges has made a "political power play for the ages" by front footing a potential leadership challenge and ensuring any coup is on his terms, Newshub Political Editor Tova O'Brien says.

After a disastrous Newshub-Reid-Research poll for the National Party on Monday, questions about Bridges' future leading the party are heating up again.

Bridges told The AM Show on Wednesday he understood two of his colleagues were planning to challenge him and deputy Paula Bennett for the leadership. Those two MPs are understood to be Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye. 

O'Brien said MPs' plan had been for a vote of no-confidence on Tuesday when the next caucus meeting was scheduled. Bridges has now put everything on his own terms, she said.

"You have got to admire the guts on this guy. It was a political power play for the ages. Simon Bridges front footing this, pulling a kinda Patrick Swayze move. No one puts Bridges in the corner. Front footing it, staring down these MPs, saying 'I have got your number, I am going to see this through, it is going to be on my terms, this coup is going to be on my terms'," O'Brien told The AM Show.

"He is trying to take out all the oxygen that these proverbial stirrers in his caucus have been agitating and whipping up over the last week and especially the last couple of days.

"We were hearing that they have the numbers for that vote of no-confidence push, it's just whether they have the numbers in those various different potential contender camps to actually make the move and that is what Simon Bridges is banking on, that he has the numbers, that he still has that strong core."

She said it is possible Bridges summons his MPs back to Wellington before Tuesday for a vote.

"There is something that happens to Simon Bridges when he is boxed into a corner. He actually grows more confidence."

But O'Brien said while Bridges is known for being a fighter, his MPs are hoping for a "managed transition" of power. 

"Those are the kind of terms that they are using. A lot of them want Simon Bridges just to step aside, be statesmanly, and get out of the way. Make it a bloodless coup because none of them wanna look like they are talking about themselves in the middle of a global crisis. They want to be able to move on."

There has been leadership coup speculation in the past, with Judith Collins frequently touted as the likely frontrunner to replace Bridges. On Tuesday, Collins was asked if she was considering a tilt at the leadership before the election and said she had "no intention of doing any such thing".

"The Muller-Kaye thing is almost dead-certain, but the Judith Collins thing, you heard her yesterday, she isn't putting her hand up for this and I believe her," O'Brien said,

"Last year, there was a lot more agitation around her. She was being mischievous. But the lioness has been tamed. You have seen a lot more of Judith Collins in the kind of Simon Bridges, National Party leadership videos and things. 

"She is not necessarily going to put her hand up. But I do know that MPs have been contacting her and asking her to do that. So, it just depends whether or not she kind of feels this call to duty, I suppose, or whether she thinks it is a poisoned chalice and she doesn't need to make any kind of moves at this stage."

While Kaye is relatively well-known for her success in the Auckland Central seat, including for beating Jacinda Ardern there, as well as for her stint as Education Minister and for battling cancer, Muller may be less familiar to Kiwis. 

"He is a good guy, he is super smart, he does have the cred, it is just whether he has that name recognition. He is not this kind of Jacinda Ardern character who can sweep in six weeks out before an election," O'Brien said.

One play any contender could make when trying to convince colleagues to vote for them may be to show they have a better relationship with New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. Working with New Zealand First may be necessary for National to regain power.

"Todd Muller and Winston Peters do have a better relationship. Winston Peters definitely respects Todd Muller a hell of a lot more than he respects Simon Bridges and that is going to be something that is interesting to watch as well, whether any leadership contenders put that card back on the table to work with New Zealand First again."

The general election is currently scheduled to take place on September 19.