That leadership 'election': Have we just been played?

10:06 am on 9 December 2016

Opinion - At first it seemed Prime Minister John Key had surprised everyone with his resignation. He said he would support whoever was leader but would be backing his deputy, Bill English.

Was that an invitation to treat the succession as an open election, or a steer to his caucus to vote for English or else?

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Clockwise from top left, Judith Collins, John Key, Jonathan Coleman, Paula Bennett, Bill English and Simon Bridges. Photo: RNZ

It might have occurred to some National Party members that the leader to whom they had all been so loyal for so long had just left them in the lurch. Winning a fourth term was the plan, after which he could retire in dignity a year or 18 months later.

It's exceptionally hard to win four terms in a row - how much harder will it be to do it without their enormously popular leader?

John Key, trader to his boots, knew when to hold and when to fold, but the trigger wasn't anything to do with the good of the party. It was his own interest.

Then we learned he told English of his intentions back in September. That means the two of them had more than two months to plot the succession. Their aim, it is now plain, was to establish the basis for continuing the Key government under English.

They will have known they would need to signal both continuity and rejuvenation.

A mock election was the first step.

Judith Collins' bid seemed serious, if not to win then at least to suggest to English he should have her in the tent, not out of it.

But Jonathan Coleman's bid was so peculiar it's hard to know what to think. Did they ask him to do it to make the process look more even-handed? Does he think he's helped his chances of becoming deputy? All he really did was reveal a disturbing level of hubris.

For continuity, they would anoint Steven Joyce as finance minister. For rejuvenation, they'd have a contested election for deputy with no one over 45 in the race and all the candidates chanting "Next generation!"

Paula Bennett would win. Bennett's a member of the inner circle, has been groomed for higher honours and, by their lights, has done little wrong. Deputy would be her reward for not subverting the plan with a tilt of her own at the top.

English and Bennett have looked like the National Party's best succession team for some time. A bolder and less traditionalist party would have put her in charge with him as the eminence grise, but she looks good now to be the leader after him anyway.

Amy Adams will have fancied her chances until Bennett elbowed her aside, and Simon Bridges will be copping those elbows too. Coleman may be asked to make the tea.

The reality here: Bennett has more winning charisma in a single cocked eyebrow than all those others in their entire bodies combined.

English should be worried about that, of course. If he starts to slip in the polls she's going to be right there, grinning at us over his shoulder.

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Labour leader Andrew Little's charisma may be perfectly matched by that of Bill English. Photo: RNZ

Also for rejuvenation, a refreshed cabinet. Key was going to do this anyway, early next year, and was expected to promote Mark Mitchell and Chris Bishop. And Marama Fox of the Māori Party could have her status enhanced, which may help her in the Ikaroa-Rāwhiti seat. Others will also be lifted up and English can now take the credit for all of it.

Retiring ministers Murray McCully and Hekia Parata may have to go straight away and Nick Smith will surely be persuaded to join them. Other ministers, inside and outside cabinet, must also be nervous: Nathan Guy, Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga, Craig Foss and Louise Upston spring to mind.

English may even have one or two other retirees to replace - Gerry Brownlee and Anne Tolley, perhaps - senior ministers who decide the party is probably headed for opposition and they're not keen on being a part of it. Disloyal? Hardly, when they'd be doing only what John Key just did, quitting while they're ahead.

However it plays out, English will not find it hard to present a fresh-looking cabinet, still with enough old hands to look competent.

There are two big questions.

First, can a John Key government win an election without John Key? Mostly, we've assumed not. But is that true? English has such a big surplus to play with, he'd have to be a complete incompetent not to find ways to satisfy most of the swing voters he needs to retain. It's true elections are about the economy, so he should win.

But it's also true voters need to believe in and be reassured by leaders, so that means all bets are off. Neither main party has an obviously more charismatic leader.

And there's more. A third truism is that governments run out of steam, and a fourth is that what voters want from the opposition is to appear credible. On both those counts, the race, at this point, is anyone's.

The second big question is: will the English government really be the Key government without Key? Most of the personnel changes are not likely to be significant, because the two architects of the Key government have been English and Joyce and they're both getting a promotion.

Bill English and John Key after the National Party won the 2008 election.

Bill English and John Key after the National Party won the 2008 election. Photo: AFP

But English is a moral conservative, while on social policy Key was a disinterested laissez-faire liberal. That will produce differences in tone and substance.

Other differences could be critical in Auckland.

Key and English support the principles of the Unitary Plan and its attempts to contain urban sprawl. Incoming finance minister Steven Joyce does not, and it seems Simon Bridges, who has been relatively progressive with the transport portfolio, will move on. Those changes could set Auckland on quite a different course.

Overreaching all that, winter is coming, at the exact same time we start the build-up to the election. There was widespread dismay this winter at the discovery of so many families living in cars. As we head into the cold months next year will that happen again? The underlying causes have not remotely been addressed and it's not clear yet that emergency help will be geared up well enough either.

Any more TV coverage of kids trying to do their homework, huddling in the cold under dim torchlight in the backs of parked-up vehicles, and Bill English can kiss goodbye to his hopes of winning the election right then and there.

* Simon Wilson is a journalist specialising in politics and urban issues