Simon Bridges should be safe in the National Party leader role until the election because there is too much work on the party's agenda for it to start tearing itself apart, two political commentators say.
Rumours are swirling that Bridges could be about to face a leadership coup after his response to the Government's decision to extend the nationwide lockdown until next week came under heavy fire online. Paula Bennett and Mark Mitchell are understood to be looking at how much support they have, but both Bridges and Bennett have denied anything is underway. Mitchell has also expressed support for the current leader.
Speaking to The AM Show on Wednesday, political commentators Chris Trotter and Trish Sherson both said they believed Bridges wouldn't be rolled due to the enormity of the task ahead for the National Party as the September election looms.
"I suspect he will [survive until the election]. I am not sure National is ready to tear itself apart with a leadership struggle at this stage," Trotter, a left-leaning commentator, said.
Sherson, who generally supports the right, added that National will be looking to keep its base motivated.
"I think Bridges, I think he should stay there until the election. I can't see any upside in changing the leader now. There is so much work for the National Party to do now," she said.
"If you think about their constituency, if you think about where the hard mahi is going to come from, it is National's supporters who need to hear that the party is really focused on how to push the Government along to do the right thing, to get the economy back on track."
Speculation about Bridges' future has run rampant over the last two days after he criticised the Government for being slow to ramp up testing, tracing and the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the COVID-19 lockdown. In a Facebook post he said the lockdown was being extended because the "Government hasn't done the groundwork required to have us ready", a sentiment echoed in a press conference on Monday afternoon.
The response to that Facebook post has been largely negative, with tens of thousands of comments and reactions. Many of those condemning Bridges were National supporters now questioning their loyalty.
As Bridges pointed out on Wednesday morning to The AM Show, since his comments the Auditor-General has launched an investigation into the management of PPE stock - something welcomed by the Director-General of Health - and a report has been released critical of the country's capacity to contact trace.
Sherson said the comments weren't the problem, but Bridges was.
"I think there is nothing on face value that was wrong in his comments. It is the kind of comments that you would expect the Leader of the Opposition to be testing the Government on around this," she said.
"I think the bigger problem, though, is Simon Bridges' own personal disapproval rating, and I think that is probably where you get that rub [but] you just can't take social media as a barometer on this."
Trotter felt Bridges had dug himself into a hole.
"It's a very unfortunate position for Simon Bridges to find himself in, but entirely of his own making. I really thought after his rather disastrous speech in Parliament he had learnt to adopt the statesman-like role for the duration of this COVID-19 pandemic, and he was doing very well I thought with his Epidemic Response Committee," he said.
"But this latest has just been woeful and the response to it was just entirely predictable, perhaps not quite vociferous, people, I think, are surprised at that. He has dug this hole for himself."
Bridges told The AM Show that he didn't believe the rumours about a leadership coup, while Bennett tweeted that the speculation had no factual basis. Both said rumours began after speculation from left-wing bloggers and Twitter users.
Mitchell tweeted his support for Bridges on Wednesday morning.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday that the Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield had expressed confidence that there was no widespread community transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in New Zealand, but the lockdown extension was to provide "additional certainty".
New Zealand's level of surveillance testing - where a sample of the population is tested to check for undetected community transmission - has previously been criticised, but over the last week, health officials have begun testing people at supermarkets across the country. No positive results have yet been returned from these tests.
The Government has also responded to criticism of the contact tracing by announcing a multi-million dollar investment into public health units (PHU) and confirmed work remains underway to develop a phone application would help track who people have been near to.
"To further strengthen our contact tracing Cabinet today approved up to a $55 million investment. This is on top of the initial $15 million that went to PHUs in March for contact tracing," Health Minister Dr David Clark announced on Monday.
"This funding will mean PHUs can be expanded as required, with additional surge capacity of up to 300 full-time equivalent staff. The NCCS will also get extra resources to manage complex investigations, such as detailed analysis of clusters."