Claire Trevett: Bye Covid, hello economy as PM Jacinda Ardern starts the fight back against National leader Christopher Luxon

OPINION:

In the space of little more than a week, it happened: PM Jacinda Ardern started the fight back against Christopher Luxon’s attempted pillaging of the economic high ground, and Covid-19 started slipping into the rear-view mirror.

One good thing in the PM’s week came from an unexpected place: National MP Simon Bridges’ decision to quit.

The day before Bridges made his announcement, Ardern had also been asked whether she intended to stay on and fight the 2023 election.

These questions tend to only arise if the person facing them is starting to look less enthusiastic about their position are are being buffeted in the polls.

It took Ardern quite a while of dancing around the question before coming out with the simple “yes.”

“One difficult poll is not enough for a politician who’s been around for a very long time,” she said.

“My job is not just to get us through the pandemic, it’s to get us through the economic crisis that is following.”

She will be hoping the last week proves to be a circuit breaker after six months of sliding in the polls – the price of those Covid-19 restrictions.

The week delivered a petrol tax cut and the dismantling of more of that scaffolding of the Covid-19 response: the decision to re-open the borders within a month.

The announcement of a temporary 25c cut in petrol tax was as important politically as it was for people’s pockets.

It was important to show that the Government’s tunnel vision on all things Covid had ended and it was still (belatedly) attuned to the concerns of the people.

It also signalled the PM was not willing to cede ground on the critical metric of economic management to the resurgent National Party without a fight.

National has traditionally dominated in the polls when people have been asked for their perceptions of who is best to manage the economy, but Labour took over once Covid-19 came along.

National re-took that ground in the polls after Luxon’s elevation to leader and Labour knows it is now in a long, hard fight to try to reclaim it – or at least to stay close.

Ardern and Robertson found a lever and pulled it. More levers will be pulled in the Budget.

Ardern is also now distancing herself more from the nitty gritty of the Covid-19 response. She leaves it to Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins and director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield to front on the day to day health response to Omicron.

For a long time the PM has been closely associated with Covid-19. She led the response and spoke to it. It benefited her once – but as Covid-19 has slipped down the list of things people are most worried about, so too has her polling.

Ardern herself now focuses on announcing the future.

This week, almost two years to the day since the borders closed on 19 March 2020, Ardern announced they would re-open. No isolation, nothing more than a test or two. Next week she will also look at when to drop the other increasingly unpalatable elements of the response: vaccination mandates and the vaccination passes.

On Friday morning Ardern was back on Australian morning television, urging people to come visit.

It marked the start of Ardern’s return to selling New Zealand to the world, rather than hiding it away. That will accelerate in the coming months as the PM heads off on intended trips to Asia, the US, Europe and Australia.

Luxon has made rapid ground against Ardern by focusing on the cost of living and the economy. He will eventually have to talk about other issues as well – and it is then that his inexperience could be telling.

As for Bridges, his departure continues National’s epidemic of having people who should stay leave, while those who should leave are staying.

Of the three former leaders in National’s caucus – Bridges, Todd Muller and Judith Collins – Bridges was the one Luxon did not want to leave. Collins should have left the moment she lost the leadership.

Luxon went as close he could to telling her that without being too insulting by giving her the research, science and technology portfolio – an issue that does not attract much publicity – and putting her near the bottom of his shadow Cabinet.

National has a small caucus and cannot afford to have people lingering on because they can’t yet think of anything better to do, especially those nursing old resentments. It needs people who are hungry for government and prepared to work for it.

That is also the reason Bridges was right to decide to leave straight away rather than linger around until the election simply to avoid a byelection.

Luxon will not have had time to realise how important Bridges could have been for him, and not just for his cunning, experience and ability to get under Ardern’s skin.

Bridges’ political instincts and skill at picking an issue and hammering at it is a loss to Luxon. But the longer term loss is not what Bridges offered publicly – but what he offered internally.

As the effective spokesman for National’s conservative MPs, Bridges would have served as a warning bell if Luxon was veering too far in a direction that upset those conservative MPs. It will be a critical relationship to manage for Luxon to maintain the discipline and unity he needs.

It is not yet something Luxon has had the experience to feel instinctively and his top two MPs – Nicola Willis and Christopher Bishop – are the very ones the conservative MPs are most worried about. Luxon promoted Paul Goldsmith to his 5th ranked MP as a nod to that faction. Goldsmith is close friends with Bridges but has a very different nature – and is a tad less courageous about tackling such things.

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