• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Killer instinct

What National needs is a leader with venom as well as vision.

Maybe they were trying to read the tea-leaves swirling down the plug hole. Just what did Rodney Hide and his old mate Don Brash talk about as they scrubbed the dishes while holidaying in Greymouth? And wouldn't the rest of the National Party caucus just love to find out.

Never one to miss an opportunity - even in the politics-free zone of the silly season - Hide posted a snap of himself and Brash doing the domestics on his website with the cheeky caption "Who says National and Act can't work together?"

Well, no one much cares right now. Of far more moment is the Brash-National relationship. And you can bet Hide had a view on that, too, but not for public consumption.

As Mike Moore liked to quip, your enemies you know; it is your friends you have to watch. And he should know. Having been buried under 1990's crushing National landslide, Moore performed a near-miracle in taking Labour to the brink of victory in 1993. Then he was unceremoniously dumped.

Likewise Brash? National does not like to talk about history repeating itself. But it faces a similar quandary - a leader who may have outlived his usefulness.

Somehow Brash has managed to be both outstanding success and an abysmal failure. Unfortunately, his positive attributes - principally his redefining and re-anchoring of National ideology, which make it crystal-clear what the party stands for - are not what National needs over the next year or so. It needs someone with venom as well as vision whose tenacity will grind Labour into the dust. This year's sermon from Orewa has to be an all-guns-blazing ripsnorter that freshly kneecaps Labour before Helen Clark and company get the chance to get back on their feet.

And that is something Brash is simply not very good at. He warms to the Opposition's duties of denigration as much as Dracula to a crucifix.

He has done the job wanted of him. Huge doubt surrounds whether he can do the job now expected of him. His party is pumped up, its morale and self-confidence never higher thanks largely to him. Yet - as one blogger cruelly summed things up - Brash is a Dead Man Walking.

The speculation is that it is only a matter of time - perhaps following National's 70th birthday bash in May - before Brash voluntarily steps down or agrees under duress to a managed departure, which has the double benefit of giving him some dignity and avoiding putting the party through the wringer of a challenge.

Exit Brash, enter the dream team - the youth, drive, verve and savvy of John Key as leader and symbol of National's entering a new, more pragmatic era, free of the baggage of the 1990s; the steadying hand of Bill English as deputy.

It's all rather neat and tidy. Too neat and tidy. It is National's habit to stuff things up if it is at all possible to do so.

The scenario presumes Brash would be willing to go. Who knows what he told Hide over the tea-towels, but the word before Christmas was that his resolve to stay on had hardened.

And the feeling was that English, back in the ascendancy, does not view Key as Brash's inevitable successor and himself as deputy.

And where does this leave Gerry Brownlee, the current Deputy? And what of Katherine Rich and Simon Power? National is not factionalised, it is Balkanised.

The competing ambitions will make it the devil's job to put together a sacking crew that delivers the message to Brash that there is no choice but to go.

The potential for inertia is exacerbated by the 2005 intake of new MPs - a major chunk of the caucus - owing their seats to the Brash-inspired revival of the party.

Last, but by no means least, is Key, barely out of short pants politically speaking, ready to do the job capably?

He is as ready as Brash was when he became leader in 2003 after just a year in Parliament. But back then National was truly desperate. The party chose to gamble that Brash's gravitas would outweigh his inexperience of politics. It will think carefully before gambling on inexperience again.

Even so, senior party figures have dreadful difficulty picturing Brash fronting National into the next election campaign.

Having made a complete hash of one campaign, he cannot be trusted not to make a mess of the next one. That fear is compounded by his age - he'll be 68 by the time the next scheduled election rolls around. His sympathisers might say this is ageist, that Brash is a youthful 65. But, at his worst, he can come across as a fuddy-duddy and a bumbler all rolled into one.

Brash may look enviously at the likes of India's former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who was implored to stay on after recently announcing he was quitting politics. He isn't 68. Or 78. He bows out at 81. But then most of the Indian Cabinet are in their seventies. Winston Churchill, of course, became Prime Minister for the second time at 77. Age may not be a barrier elsewhere - an Indian MP held his seat at the age of 94 - but New Zealand politics has yet to undergo such a culture shift.

That will happen. As the baby-boomers get older, parties will respond to their demand for more "mature" politicians, much as advertisers insist on older characters in soap operas to lure the affluent aged.

No wonder Winston Peters has left the hair colouring on the bathroom shelf while his curls whiten nicely.

The demographics dictate. But not yet. Peters is a good five years younger than Brash. Time will work for him. It is working against Brash.

Brash simply has to pedal twice as fast to counteract the notion he is past it.

Still, if he can whittle Labour's poll rating to 35 percent or lower in coming months, while keeping National above 40 percent, it will be that much harder to argue he should go, especially when there is no enthusiasm for knifing him.

Should National wait and see if Brash can cut it? Clark didn't. She rolled Moore almost before the ink was dry on the final election returns.

Brash has one advantage. Moore never saw it coming. Like everyone else, Brash knows that at some point this year the caucus is going to have to make a decision about whether his age is a problem.

Forewarned is forearmed. He could cut a deal on when he retires. He could cut a deal and renege on it - the John Howard solution. He could force the issue early on while there is still doubt about Key. His final card would be to forgo a managed exit and make a fight of it. Brash would be harder to dislodge than English was. And English only lost by a couple of votes.

National may feel queasy about all this, but it has to be utterly unsentimental.

It can probably rely to some degree on leadership speculation rumbling on and undermining Brash, thus making his stepping down a self-fulfilling prophecy.

However, Brash's survival probably comes down to his getting the better of Clark and dragging down her still-stratospheric rating as preferred Prime Minister.

That rating shows she's a magnet pulling middle-of-the-road and female voters in Labour's direction. It may have been the difference between victory and defeat last year.

The "Clark brand" has been unsullied by embarrassments over forged paintings and speeding motorcades because those things are irrelevant to the government's performance.

When the bushfires really do turn up the heat in the Beehive, Clark has become extremely clever at distancing herself from them, while dousing the flames.

Brash must change this, so that blame for the government's shortcomings attaches firmly to her. Yet, when given a free hit in the form of David Benson-Pope, Brash played his usual dead bat. It was a painful reminder to his MPs that any slide in Clark's popularity is only likely to happen in spite of him, not because of him.

So, like the condemned man, he waits for the knock on the door.

John Armstrong is the New Zealand Herald's political correspondent. Jane Clifton is on leave.