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Bill English’s drop in the polls is making National MPs uneasy

Prime Minister Bill English. Photo/Getty Images

For those who reach the top in politics, retirement has traditional perks: illustrious directorships, stratospheric speaking fees, lucrative consulting contracts, that sort of thing.

Trust John Key to take it that barmy bit further.

Never before has being PM led to becoming a professional golfer. As of this week, he ascends from the green undulations of Planet Key to the professional bunkers of Planet Handa, being paid to play, watch and be cuddly mascot for Japanese tycoon Haruhisa Handa’s global tournaments.

As a precedent, this is really going to raise the bar. What if gigs like heading a chunk of the United Nations, à la Helen Clark, or advising developing countries on asset sales, like Ruth Richardson, aren’t glam enough any more? Future retired grandees might fancy post-politics careers as All Blacks, pop singers, celebrity chefs or astronauts. Are there enough charmingly eccentric billionaires to accommodate them?

As the empties from Key’s farewell bash clank off to the recycling depot, seldom has Bill English’s old line been more apt: “I grind away. John bounces from one cloud to another.”

As new PM, English is grinding away – to diminishing returns. Labour and National poll soundings show National’s percentage heading south towards the low 40s. Labour isn’t yet benefiting handsomely from this, but if “time for change” momentum accelerates, voters will, however reluctantly, perceive that giving Labour a legitimising vote share is the surest way to achieve that change.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Although tentative, the poll shift signals that what was once a victory sleepwalk for National has tipped into “game-on” territory. English’s assiduously steady-as-she-goes Cabinet, which hasn’t undone any key Keyisms (even the Super proposal is heavily provisional), will be asking what’s gone wrong.

“Bloody cheek!” reaction

It’s never any one thing. The Clark Government’s last gasp came after years of survivable voter grudges and niggles, with the pettiest of last straws: light-bulb and shower-rose regulation. These were apocryphal, but mere talk of them felt like a home invasion. The bottled-water furore, although fiscally minute, shows signs of going dangerously light-bulby on National for triggering that same “Bloody cheek!” reaction.

National’s further handicap is lack of experience of sinking popularity. Only a handful of Nats have known times of low voter approval, the past decade safely immersed in the warm bath of Key’s popularity and dexterity. If that bathwater keeps cooling, there are enough talented backbenchers who can see their chances of reaching Cabinet disappearing forever to cause English big trouble.

They got their first taste of cards-in-the-air leadership spill in the chaotic week after Key tendered his resignation. The warm-bath spell was broken in a trice by the magical incantation, “Why not me?”

And if the caucus does grow querulous, it’ll get personal. The Government’s electoral vulnerabilities – housing, water and the stalled debacle of resource management reform – are all the domain of English’s extremely close friend Nick Smith, aka Pamplona in a china shop. These are two extremely bright men, who not unnaturally shore each other up intellectually. But English’s continued protection of and reliance on his maladroit mate is causing resentment, including in the Cabinet. Under Key, Smith was on his way to retirement. English has made him more powerful than ever. Admirable though it is, sacrificing one’s country for one’s friend rather than the other way round is not how politics is generally played.

A dead giveaway of National’s unease was the Nikki Kaye/Maggie Barry attack on Labour’s new deputy, Jacinda Ardern, as a “cosmetic” and unaccomplished nullity. Deputy PM Paula Bennett joined in the next day, calling her patronising. She would have been better following her earlier advice to Ardern, “Zip it, sweetie.”

Seeing women in leadership attacking other women in leadership for being “cosmetic”, in an era when women are paid nearly 12% less than men for no good reason, is deeply unedifying. This is also the classic trolling pitfall where onlookers can infer way more uncharitable information about the attackers than the attacked.

And there’s a telling hypocrisy about the “What’s Ardern ever done?” line. No one in Opposition gets to “do” anything; the clue’s in the job title. Aside from the odd hen’s tooth successful private member’s bill, Opposition is all talk. No one asked, “What’s he ever done?” when Andrew Little became leader – although the answer was exactly the same as for Ardern: nothing yet.

Equally, no one asked “What’s Bennett ever done?” when she first entered Cabinet. Yet the answer was also: nothing yet.

Labour deputy leader Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Getty Images

Popular deputies

Another misdirection is the focus on Ardern’s rapid overtaking of Little in the preferred PM ratings. It’s awkward, given that Little’s stocks have remained stolidly below double figures. But popular deputies are only a problem if they want the boss’ job, and Ardern most emphatically does not. Nor would she dream of taking a “crash-pilot” shot in the foreseeable future. Labour’s booby-trapped electoral constitution is one of many reasons why not, but the main one is she’s a plum asset precisely where she is. Voters warm to her. Her right time will come, as it did for the similarly X-factored Key. She won’t need to spill blood or be in an unseemly hurry.

Ardern is not the first diamond Deputy Dawg, either. Winston Peters overtook Jim Bolger, who, of course, “never commented on polls”. It’s also worth remembering that Opposition leaders hardly ever outrate PMs.

Little has work to do, his chief obstacle being his stubborn introversion. In that light, his summer conversion to contact lenses is more than merely cosmetic. It signals a similar determination to win as did Clark’s capitulation to long-resisted heated rollers. If it’s game-on, you can’t be a player entirely on your own terms. Little will never be the cloud-bouncing selfie king that Key was – but his opponent won’t be, either. He needs to learn to work a room and look a little less as though someone just dinged his car.

For the Nats, having so long taken a fourth term as read, the possibility that their own leader may soon be less secure in his job than Labour’s will be a toughie. Points to the first Opposition MP to suggest to the PM that the vacancy for Key’s caddie hasn’t yet been filled.

This article was first published in the April 1, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.