The resignation of John Key is one thing. The way that Key and his deputy Bill English have screwed the scrum on the leadership succession vote (due on December 12) is something else again. It remains to be seen whether the party caucus – ie, the ambitious likes of Steven Joyce, Judith Collins, Paula Bennett, and Amy Adams – will simply roll over and accept being reduced in this way, to becoming a mere rubber stamp for the English succession. If so, the only drama on December 12 will be in the race for second place, as deputy to the “new” leader. (The scare quotes are deliberate. The words “Bill English” and “ new” don’t belong in the same sentence.)
In the end though, the caucus will have no choice but to grin and bear it. To do otherwise would be to invite an outbreak of the same bitter faction fighting that anointing English was intended to prevent. Yes, this has been smart politicking again by Key, in his exit from the political stage. Yet the collusion between English and Key on the management of this transition is also a sign of weakness. It shows an utter lack of faith in the National Party’s ability to manage a democratic succession process. There is nothing at all democratic about how Key has anointed his successor, while on his way out the door. It amounts to a palace coup, and is not conducive to a free caucus choice.
Laughably, Key spoke at his press conference today about ‘fresh leadership’ for National, going into the 2017 election. The succession is plainly nothing of the sort. English is a vote for continuity, not for change, or for an injection of new thinking about the social and economic challenges facing the country. We’re talking about Bill English, for Pete’s sake. Hardly an unknown quantity, and hardly a fount of new policy ideas. The public has seen a lot of Bill English over the past 20 years, and it didn’t much like what it saw when he was the leader of the National Party the last time.
Admittedly, times have changed and that prior leadership stint was in the wake of a devastating electoral loss. This time though, English is riding a wave of popular political success that’s due very largely to Key, with English as only the backroom guy. It is entirely possible that English will be able to ride to success on Key’s coat-tails next year, but the attack line for Labour is obvious : good enough at being number two, but not anyone’s real choice as number one. Not up to it, hasn’t earned the top job, failed the last time he asked the voters for a mandate for it. At least Andrew Little fought it out with his colleagues to get the job as Labour leader. Sure, it can be a bruising process, but at least Little earned the position he holds. It wasn’t an early Christmas gift handwrapped for him by his predecessor.
That’s the real sticking point. In choosing English in the way they are now being led at gunpoint to do, the National caucus will have shielded its new leader from competition; quite ironic really, in a party that claims to believe in the virtues of competition as a spur to excellence. Instead, it is dodging the real risks and rewards of genuine renewal. Moreover…it is trying to ensure that a dodgy English pick as leader will get National over the line in 2017 only if they give him a big bag of lollies to distribute in the shape of tax cuts. (Tax cuts that he will be more than pleased to own.) But without Key, National’s tax cuts will look even more like a sweetener now deemed necessary to sell the public on a dodgy used car.
There is precedent across the Tasman for why National may still be reasonably confident. While some are citing the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown transition in the UK – and didn’t that work out well in the end – there’s a better example closer to home, in Australia. Plainly, National is hoping that English will become its very own John Howard ie. a figure who showed himself capable of resurrection after early, repeated failures and who went on finally to achieve a sustained run of political success in his own right.
Obviously, it could happen. Like Michael Cullen did, English has accumulated a reputation for stability and canniness, out of not spending money on the public services that people thought they were getting in return. In terms of realpolitik, choosing English might even prove to be the right choice for National, given the alternatives. A couple of months ago, I asked Greens co-leader James Shaw who would be the easier target for the centre-left in next year’s election – Steven Joyce or Bill English? Without any hesitation at all, Shaw replied : “Joyce.”
Footnote: in the contest for deputy, Amy Adams is the safe, non polarizing option. Relatively speaking she isn also a new face, and a marketable sign of renewal. By choosing Adams as his deputy, English could avoid making a choice from the Joyce/Collins/Bennett nest of vipers. Yet picking Adams would mean two South Islanders in the leadership roles, and would anoint her as the eventual future of the party. Paula Bennett however, would offer gender & geographical diversity, is popular within the party and is a livelier, more populist figure than English – and is also (marginally) a less divisive figure to the general public than Collins or Joyce. Plus, she’s associate finance minister, already.
How Did I Get Here?
That’s the question that Bill English could well be asking himself today, and on December 12. Come 2002, and with National at an all time low under his leadership, he must have kissed off his chances of ever being top dog and Best in Show anytime again. In this lifetime, anyway Been down, but he got up again. I think that the current ‘same as it ever was, sort of’ bid for continuity (amid dislocating feelings of sea change) was conveyed pretty well by David Byrne and Talking Heads, in this classic video. Twice in a lifetime.