English's exit an end and a beginning

2:14 pm on 13 February 2018

Bill English's decision to stand aside as National's leader is a beginning and an end. And another end and the beginning of something potentially much bigger.

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Bill English's departure will have implications that ripple through the party. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

In the short term, it's the end of a political chain reaction sparked by Metiria Turei's decision to go public with her welfare history. That led to the resurrection of Labour under Jacinda Ardern and her upset election victory. English's resignation is the inevitable outcome.

But this is also the end of a generation for National.

English came into parliament in 1990 as a member of a "brat pack" featuring the likes of Roger Sowry, Tony Ryall and Nick Smith.

Three of those are now gone and Smith must surely follow.

The generation of MPs blooded under Jim Bolger and Jenny Shipley are now handing the reins to those who have learned their trade in the Clark-Key era of political management. Key's departure was a false dawn as English was anointed; for the next generation, this is the time to step up. This is the new beginning.

Bill English announced as the new Prime Minister of New Zealand, Paula Bennett as Deputy Prime Minister. Bronagh Key, former Prime Minister John Key, Prime Minister Bill English and Mary English as John Key leaves parliament.

John Key congratulates Bill English as he becomes Prime Minister in 2016. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The implications of that will ripple through the party and it seems inevitable that the key members of the Key team will drift away. Paula Bennett, Steven Joyce, Gerry Brownlee … it's unlikely we'll see their names on the ballot sheet in 2020. Yet, having said that, National will want some old heads to stay on. This transition needs to be carefully managed.

Straight after the election English may have fostered some hopes of playing the long game and finding a path to his own resurrection. It would have been a crack at a third political life, after his first run at the leadership as Shipley's heir and his second run as Key's heir. But any faint hopes of that ended the second Ardern announced her pregnancy. The baby did for him.

Trying to convince the country to essentially go back to past management when the government had an in-built story about 'a brighter future' would have been impossible. National needs a new generation to meet a new generation.

So the test is now on for National's much-vaunted internal discipline. Remember, the leader is chosen entirely by caucus (although lobbying from the membership will be intense).

Interestingly, the party has chosen a terribly short two-week leadership election period. We will only know in retrospect whether the party lives to regret the decision not to take its time to really re-think its purpose and direction, but we will know very soon whether the battle will be nasty and brutish as well as short.

The first decision the MPs - and the wannabe candidates - face is whether they think National can win in 2020. That will inform whether they plump for a caretaker or make the generational leap in one fell swoop. It may be they don't want to send the best of their new generation over the top and into the machine guns of Ardern and baby in 2020. They may want someone to take one for the team.

In 2009, Labour opted to use Phil Goff as a bridge. It might have worked better if the party could have settled on a successor. So can National avoid Labour's Cunliffe conniptions? Does it select a seat-warmer such as Jonathan Coleman or even Bennett? A Judith Collins, who will tear up the Key-English doctrine and reconnect National with the free market? Or will MPs jump straight to the class of 2008 - Simon Bridges, Nikki Kaye and Amy Adams?

The latter choice is the bolder, risker one. Is it too soon for one of those three? Can they counter the Ardern effect?

The other bigger beginning could be the re-fashioning of the right in New Zealand politics. English has left National in staggeringly good shape for a man twice rejected as Prime Minister. He shouldered the task of keeping the party popular and real after Key resigned and leaving National seemingly stable and as the most popular party in the country is quite an achievement.

But it's hard to imagine that level of support being sustained in the change of leaders. And if National's support slides, will its monopoly on the centre-right and right of New Zealand be sustainable? ACT leader David Seymour will be only one politician looking at today as the chance of a new beginning.

As for English, I'll remember him as a politician who was willing to engage in an era when too many hide behind their media minders. History, I expect, will remember him for the things he didn't do, as much as for the things he did. On the plus side, he didn't panic in the Global Financial Crisis. On the minus, he didn't spend and invest to the extent he could have. But he was the personification of the 'keep calm and carry on' mantra.

The question now is whether National can maintain that or whether it will be dashed on the rocks of ambition. It'll be a fascinating fortnight.

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