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Simon Bridges: sometimes daring, but never beige, bows out

Luke Malpass is Stuff’s political editor.

OPINION: Simon Bridges left Parliament on Wednesday night with a jagged speech that was, well – very Bridges. He handed out “free advice”, claimed the policy had become too beige, too focussed on focus groups and where too few people had a crack.

They were vintage bridges. A big gripe, a bit dug but also quite honest about the reality of how politics can sometimes work in New Zealand. And with a message: be bold.

National's Simon Bridges makes his final 'bridge run' through Parliament on his way to the debating chamber of the House of Representatives.

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff

National’s Simon Bridges makes his final ‘bridge run’ through Parliament on his way to the debating chamber of the House of Representatives.

Bridges should be remembered not just as someone who wanted to make a difference – which he did – but as someone who loves politics. The cut and thrust, liquidation, niggle, planning, plotting, strategy and tactics.

He also returned to the well-trodden ground of National Party composition and fired a not-too-subtle jab through the arc of the current leadership within the caucus.

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“Give primacy too narrow a spectrum in believing that the prevailing views in central Wellington and Auckland constitute New Zealand, and National will in time cease to be the strongest and most representative political movement that we have.”

He also argued, interestingly, that politicians aren’t paid so well for what they do, leaving the risk of becoming an MP becoming the preserve of the super-rich or simply those preparing to stay in politics no matter what. This was after whipping the press gallery for group reflection and imploring political reporters to spend more time in the provinces.

Bridges also touched on something that has been a problem for him his entire career – that over the years he has been seen as less Maori because he is conservative and generally does not favor what he calls “the special help”.

“The reason I have been and continue to oppose policies such as separate Maori quarters, health authorities etc. is because while I deeply understand that our country has a way of doing the race, personally, I don’t want to be treated differently based on it.

Parliament will just be a little poorer and more boring for bridges leaving. The National Party will also miss his experience and pragmatic – if sometimes colorful and crude – way of seeing the world and expressing his opinions. However, this very trait also proved a downside as, over time, it rubbed many of his caucus colleagues the wrong way.

It was noted around the building that in the period following the loss of the National Party leadership, it seemed to reinvent itself, become less serious and more comfortable in its own skin. He also got quite funny and prepared to get laid.

Simon Bridges with Grant Robertson after his farewell speech in the Chamber on Wednesday evening.

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff

Simon Bridges with Grant Robertson after his farewell speech in the Chamber on Wednesday evening.

His caucus critics fear that alongside the new Simon they believe he played a big role in unseating Todd Muller and Judith Collins.

He even admitted in the farewell speech that he was ‘a young fog perhaps’ but expressed hope that his brand of conservative politics could ‘come back into fashion one day’.

As leader, he led the party through the post-John Key/Bill English era. As is often the case in the opposition after a long period in government, it has been torn apart by rivalries, backbiting and divisions over the direction the National Party should take or even what it should be.

He was just one of National’s executives torn apart in this transition to reinventing National — a problem that Christopher Luxon’s ascendancy and subsequent polling success seem to have eased.

When you look at Bridges’ career, you can only feel the contingency of history.

Had Covid not struck when it did, turning PM’s Jacinda Ardern into something more like a temporary national saviour, the 2020 election would have been a close race. If Bridges hadn’t slammed the government in a Facebook post soon after the first lockdown with a criticism that would seem fairly trivial even a few months later, he might have held the leadership.

But it was not to be. Being bold and trying not to be beige ultimately cost Bridges leadership. And now he is leaving after his final speech drew a long standing ovation and hugs from fellow party leaders. What he will do next will probably not be beige: probable boss of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, and media.