Simon Bridges, the former prosecutor who faces his greatest trial against 'nice person' Ardern

Charlotte Graham-McLay in Wellington

Whatever plans Simon Bridges had to convince New Zealanders that he should be their next prime minister are – nominally at least – on hold. Bridges, the leader of the parliamentary opposition and of the centre-right National party, suspended campaigning for September’s poll last month as lawmakers across the political spectrum united to endorse a four-week shutdown over the Covid-19 pandemic.

But despite the cross-party display of support for measures to combat the virus’ spread, politics for Bridges is never far away. A post on his Facebook page is soliciting support for his call to quarantine everyone entering New Zealand – currently, the government is allowing some to self-isolate at home – and urges the public to message him directly with their problems or complaints during the lockdown.

And Bridges, 43, has jumped at the opportunity, in his new position as leader of a parliamentary committee scrutinising the government’s decisions on Covid-19, to grill those in power.

“I think actually the scrutiny and the sunlight’s working,” he told a radio interviewer on Friday, referring to the committee’s daily sittings, held on a publicly livestreamed video call. “We’re dragging out more openness and transparency behind the press conferences.”

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Jacinda Ardern, the country’s prime minister – an adroit and empathetic communicator – is in her element in a crisis, and one of the world’s most popular leaders. But if an election is held in September as scheduled, Bridges told the Guardian in a February interview that he was not worried about his rival’s global profile.

“I see when I go overseas, our prime minister – and therefore the government – has this strong reputation and that’s amazing,” he says,upbeat but underscored by his trademark bluntness, on a couch in his office at New Zealand’s parliament. “But of course for New Zealanders at home, that international work is only so good as your domestic record and that is, I clearly think, lacking.”

Pitching economic clout

Like Ardern, Bridges has a young family at home. His three children – aged seven, five and two – and wife Natalie live in the port city of Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty in the North Island. He has brought to Wellington the relaxed, casual demeanour of the beachfront city, though he admits he has no life beyond politics, his family, and a little Netflix, and has never learned to surf.

But where Ardern has built a reputation for exhorting a politics of kindness, Bridges is painted by his detractors as too negative, not likeable enough, maladroit in sensitive situations. The former prosecutor – who almost burned out in the job because, he tells the Guardian, he obsessed over each case he presented before a court – says that depiction of him is wrong.

“I don’t think anyone has a monopoly on compassion,” he says. “And I don’t think it’s always what people say that defines that. I think it is one’s acts in government that show that.”

While polling data has not been published since Ardern shut down the country last Wednesday – a move that was widely supported to combat Covid-19, but is expected to deepen a recession forecast for the country – a 1News Colmar Brunton poll in February suggested it would be Bridges’ National that would form the government after a vote in September, with a razor-thin, two-seat majority over the left-wing coalition led by Labour.

But that was when the threat of Covid-19 still felt far from New Zealand’s shores; now, the vote is likely to come down to whether people believe Ardern’s party or Bridges’ can better steer New Zealand’s ship through an economic shock expected to be worse than the 2008 global financial crisis.

Bridges is making the pitch that it’s him. An economic speech touted as the centrepiece of his election-year pitch in February promised lower taxes, more jobs, boosts to GDP and debt reduction. As the impact of the pandemic became apparent in the past month, Bridges told the Guardian those pledges remained – and that Covid-19 “calls for more boldness in our actions” on the economy.

While New Zealanders are often uncomfortable with displays of naked ambition, he says Ardern’s wish for the country – that everyone might have the basics for life covered – is “not remotely ambitious and aspirational enough”.

“I want my three children to be world beaters,” he says. “I know with an English wife that they have options and I don’t want them to spend their adult years in the UK. I want this to be a world beating economy and country where they can … not just exist happily but thrive.”

Bridges and his party are not centre-right in the way some comparable countries understand the term; the lawmaker is a full-throated supporter of New Zealand’s free healthcare and schooling systems, and says he would consider climate change in his economic proposals were he prime minister. But in other ways he is an inveterate conservative: he believes New Zealanders will vote for lower taxes, would not use the term “climate emergency” and disagrees with what he calls “preaching” on the topic in schools.

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He recalls a former parliamentary colleague telling visiting Americans that “in New Zealand, the Labour party’s like the Democrats and the National party’s like the Democrats”.

“I wouldn’t overly caricature it, but New Zealanders, I think, are a caring, compassionate society – dare I say it, and maybe I’ll regret saying this, but I think a bit more so than [Australia].”

‘I also have a moral obligation to ask hard questions’

When the Guardian met Bridges in February, he expected the election to be close, but was buoyant about his chances. He is relaxed and familiar in conversation, with a tendency to warn that he is about to be candid, or to say something he “might later regret,” before voicing an entirely uncontroversial opinion in line with his political views. It is “candid”, for example, for him to suggest that people might vote for Labour come September because Ardern, in her first term as leader, is “a nice person” with good intentions and deserves another chance, even if they don’t feel the government has delivered on its promises, particularly on the country’s housing crisis.

September’s poll will be Bridges’ first as National and opposition leader; he won the role after Bill English stepped down in 2018.

Seen as a bright, young talent during National’s time in power, Bridges entered parliament as a 32-year-old lawmaker who was Oxford-educated – but the son of a clergyman and a school teacher – telegenic and with a politically enviable background prosecuting criminals. He was awarded frequent promotions and hefty portfolios, becoming minister for transport and economic development.

New Zealand’s politicians, when interviewed – perhaps cautious of the public’s preference for humility in leaders – often protest that they dislike parliament; it’s a necessary evil, not something they would ever choose. Bridges enjoys it.

“I think once you understand that it’s a place of theatre, it’s symbolically very important that arguments in parliament are good,” he says.

He is less sanguine about brickbats from “the left and the Twitterati” that he says frequently misconstrue his positions. In contrast to Ardern – who frequently receives glowing media attention for her party’s social media posts, and has called all New Zealand’s leaders to commit to factual and transparent campaigning, which Bridges says he supports – his party, he says, is nitpicked unfairly.

“They seek to hold National to a higher standard of these things and are on the lookout for it every second of the day,” he says. He is sometimes accused by his critics of inappropriately politicising situations; where Ardern plays politics, but subtly, his speeches are often battering rams.

“I think they are unfair,” he says of reproaches that he should not have criticised the government over its initial Covid-19 response. “I have often been constructive but I also have a moral obligation to ask hard questions and push the government along for the good of New Zealand.”

Bridges laughs off questions of whether he is likeable enough to lead National to victory; he has previously said it is not an essential trait in a prime minister.

Simon Bridges (far left), Winston Peters and Jacinda Ardern attend Waitangi Day celebrations on 4 February. Photograph: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

“I’m more worried sometimes that I’m not overly hardened to valid criticism and that I have some sensitivity there,” he says. “I don’t get worked up about what Mrs Jones says to me in an email or what I read on Twitter but I do want to be sensitive enough that where they’re saying you’ve got that wrong, and you can improve in this way, I seek to do that.”

What’s an example?

“I wear better-fitting suits these days,” he says.

When Bridges meets aspiring political candidates, he tries to dissuade them from running for office if they are already doing well in their careers. But he does not regret his move to leave the courtroom behind.

“You think you really enjoy something and certainly I found it satisfying, but the day I resigned to be the Tauranga candidate for the National party, a weight lifted off my shoulders,” Bridges says.

“I used to find sleeping quite hard when I was in cases, I’d always have my cross examination and my closing arguments rolling over my head, because I wanted to get it perfect for the jury and the victim.

“As my wife would attest, now in politics I sleep like a baby.”