National MPs concerned about leader Simon Bridges' 'tone' on COVID-19, 'membership is not happy'

Some National MPs are stirring against Simon Bridges' leadership, unimpressed by the tone he has taken during the COVID-19 crisis - but deputy leader Paula Bennett is categorically denying rumours she is after his job.

Bridges is no stranger to leadership rumours, telling The AM Show on Wednesday that "the blessing of being an Opposition leader is to have these sorts of stories from time to time."

But in Bridges' case, it is time after time. We have seen this dance before - National MPs stirring against his leadership. In the past it has been about his lack of popularity and his handling of the Jami-Lee Ross saga.

When asked about the latest rumours, Bridges said, "I don't think any of that is true... I think it started online and I can see how it comes from a left-wing blogger."

But it didn't start there. It kicked off with a Facebook post in which Bridges criticised the Government's response to COVID-19. It gathered 28,000 comments - most of them negative - and National supporters are among them, calling for his head.

Newshub pointed out to Bridges on Tuesday that he had been personally eviscerated in the comments on the Facebook post, and he brushed off the criticism, saying: "People are entitled to their views."

The problem is, some of his caucus share the dim view. Here is a sample of what some told Newshub - all different MPs.

  • "List MPs and marginal seats want to get the party vote up but they can't do that with a toxic leader and toxic deputy"
  • There is "deep concern about the way things are going"
  • The "membership is not happy"
  • There was a "tone issue" with the Facebook post
  • "The timing could've been better"

This time, Bridges' loyal deputy Paula Bennett has been pulled into the fray. She told Newshub people may have confused the fact she has a chicken coop with rumours she's staging the coup. 

Bennett says it is utterly outrageous. 

Bridges told The AM Show: "I talk with Paula probably three or four times a day. There's simply nothing in any of this."

National MP Mark Mitchell has contested the leadership before, but he has also rubbished talk of a rematch. Bridges described Mitchell as "a great friend and colleague" and someone he talks to "probably every day".

Things had simmered down for Bridges after he stared down disgruntled National MPs last April. But unrest in caucus bubbled up again with his very political response to the Government's COVID-19 support package announced in March, when he had a crack at beneficiaries being "baked in".

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern shot back at the time, saying: "We need unity, not politics as usual, and today, Mr Bridges, is one of those days."

Today, however, the Prime Minister refused to engage: "You'll forgive me for being utterly focused on the Government's response to COVID-19."

Analysis by Political Editor Tova O'Brien

Is a leadership challenge imminent?

There's a caucus meeting next Tuesday and leadership will inevitably come up. There's chatter but it has not reached peak coup just yet. 

There are two schools of thought emerging among MPs:

  1. Get behind Bridges, even if you don't rate him, because to roll the leader during a crisis like COVID-19, and so close to an election, would be politi-cide. 
  2. Get him out - and quick - and reinstate stability with new leadership when it's needed most. 

But, boy, is Bridges in an invidious position. His job is holding the Government to account and that's what he was trying to do with the Facebook post. 

Emotions are heightened right now, but the level of hate he got also speaks to his inability to resonate with voters.