Why Bill English's time is up

by Graham Adams / 02 February, 2018
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 How long before Bill English decides it's time to go? Photo / Getty ImagesThe Southland politician may come to be seen as the Bill Rowling of the National Party.

The drums are beating for Bill English. They may have been muffled by the results of the latest Newshub-Reid Research poll but when even the NZ Herald — often seen as the house magazine for the National Party — wonders who his successor might be, you’d have to say it’s time English started dusting off his valedictory speech.

It’s quite possible he has one already sketched and sitting in a drawer. Before John Key decided to slip away into the night in December 2016, it was widely assumed that English had become a list MP in 2014 so that he could retire at some point without forcing a by-election.

But the prospect of being handed the job of PM on a plate was no doubt too tempting. Being the Leader of the Opposition for three years before making another attempt at being elected PM won’t be nearly as appealing.

Commentators say English will not be forced out in an unseemly way and will be allowed to go at a time of his choosing. And it’s true that the latest poll results are good. He’s on 26 per cent support as preferred prime minister (to Ardern’s 38), and National is rating at a similar level as its election night triumph, with 44.5 per cent to Labour’s 42.3.

No one in the party will want to jeopardise that right now but the caucus rumblings about his leadership mean change is inevitable. The fact those rumblings were deliberately leaked just before English’s state of the nation address was damaging and humiliating for a party that prides itself on presenting a united, monolithic front and a sign they aren’t a passing thing.

If English were a Labour politician, of course, it would be a different story. Getting 44.4 per cent of the vote in the 2017 elections after nine years of a National government was an astonishing and noteworthy achievement. If English had managed that as leader of the Labour Party — even if the prime ministership had ultimately eluded him — he would now be secure.

Jacinda Ardern achieved only 36.9 per cent for Labour but, after the dismal performances of her predecessors in 2011 and 2014, she has been anointed as Labour’s Great White Hope and no speculation about the future of her leadership is tolerated, even after she announced she was pregnant. Critics who suggested that being a first-time mother and first-time prime minister might be too much for her to handle were immediately denounced. The wagons were circled, even more tightly than before.

No such protection will be offered to English. The National Party will undoubtedly want to present a new and rejuvenated leadership team to fight the next election, not least to counter Ardern’s “youth-adjacent” charm. It will also want a leader who knows how to build alliances with potential coalition partners, which English didn’t understand how to do or foolishly gambled on not needing to.

When the inevitable happens, and the obituaries are written for Bill English, it may well be noted that his career resembles another Bill from our political history… Labour’s Bill Rowling. English might not like the comparison given that Rowling is often (unfairly) portrayed as a weak leader, but their lives and careers share many trivial and significant similarities, including their inability to be elected as prime minister after serving in that role unelected.

Both came from established South Island farming families, and both had big families of their own. (English has six children and Rowling had five.) They were both called Bill even though it wasn’t their first name. English was born Simon William and Rowling was christened Wallace Edward (his father called him Bill and the name stuck).

Both studied economics at university, and were noted for their financial prowess. As finance ministers, they led the country through major economic upheaval: English had the GFC to contend with in 2009; Rowling, the 1973 oil shock and Britain joining the European Community in the same year. Both borrowed heavily to cushion the fallout.

Both were finance ministers before they became prime minister after their leaders suddenly vacated office — Norman Kirk died in 1974 and John Key stepped down without warning in 2016.

The pinnacles of their political careers (so far, at least, in English’s case) were as unelected prime ministers before being replaced by more charismatic leaders — Muldoon and Ardern.

Both were comprehensively whipped in their first elections as leaders of their party. English led National to its worst defeat in its history in 2002 against Helen Clark. Rowling lost his first election as party leader in a landslide to Muldoon in 1975. Both survived to fight again.

Both have reputations as being decent, highly intelligent, thoughtful men.

After Winston Peters announced in October that he was joining Labour in a coalition government, there were cries of National having been swindled given that it was the party with the most votes. Many commentators pointed out in response that Labour under Rowling had gained a majority of votes in the 1978 and 1981 elections but had lost both times to Muldoon because the first-past-the-post system gave National more seats.

Labour, of course, kept Rowling on as leader, even after three successive electoral defeats, until David Lange succeeded him in 1983. The National Party — the unsentimental party of pragmatists — is very unlikely to offer English the same indulgence after his two electoral defeats.

The rumblings will prove terminal sooner or later. Already, Simon Bridges is said to have the numbers to succeed English but, as Politik’s Richard Harman has pointed out, Bridges doesn’t have a suitable running mate that would enable them to replace the current duo of English and Bennett in one move. Until that problem is solved, National’s caucus will bide its time in encouraging English to step down, although it may well pick off Bennett as a curtain-raiser.

Nevertheless, change will come. Like ancient Athenian generals who were exiled after losing a battle, National politicians are not expected to merely make a good showing — they are expected to win. An honourable defeat such as English’s in the last election is still a failure.

He will have to go.

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