Now the heat starts to go on National

On Friday-Saturday, hard on the heels of hard talk from United States Admiral Dennis Blair, the National party will run a defence seminar featuring the Australian Senate foreign affairs, defence and trade committee chair Sandy McDonald, a critic of the Clark line.

This follows Bob Simcock’s child battering conference last month. Similar ventures in other topics are taking place out of the public gaze. National is moving to redevelop policy and doing it intelligently.

This is sensible in the first year in opposition after nine years in office, when not much more can be hoped for than to ride negatives created by the government itself because no one is much interested in a has-been opposition.

But now the heat is going on. The economy and voter sentiment have lifted. Senior Nationalists accept that business (while preferring National) has shifted its bead on the government from horror-stricken opposition to getting on with life – and even to mending some fences.

The government looks in charge again. Confidence poured from every pore at Labour’s conference.

The next two months are the danger zone for the National leadership, both in Parliament and in the organisation. A senior MP quoted a party sage to me last week: that it is the second Christmas after a defeat that spawns coups.

Gathered in small clusters at the beach and the barbecue, MPs will scan their prospects. They will reflect on the lack of a convincing coalition partner, Act having lost its footing, Peter Dunne and the moderate Christians yet to gell. They will note that the government is showing signs of putting a stop to inflicting wounds on itself.

Some MPs will also ponder that Jenny Shipley doesn’t have deep-down credibility with Auckland business because of what one party activist calls her “teflon” cliches; that she can’t land telling punches on Helen Clark and has messed up several potential attack lines; that she personifies the 1990s tone of which voters have tired; that she cannot out-campaign Ms Clark on the hustings.

Some will also note the new brick in Labour’s edifice, Mike Williams, who will professionalise the organisation, motivate membership, sharpen campaigning and be a counterweight to the MPs – and will contrast Williams with National president John Slater who, the hard-heads say rightly or wrongly, does not wash with business and has failed to sharpen the party’s ground-troops.

It is not important that all this is true or not. It matters only that it is thought.

The matcher for Mr Williams is Michelle Boag. She added thrust to Geoff Thompson’s defeat of Mr Slater for the presidency in 1994. She has nous, political feel, tonnes of publicity skills, deep party experience and respect and a hard head. She has hitherto shrugged off prompts to take the top job but now is in the hunt.

But what is there on the parliamentary side? Well, there’s . . . Bill English.

Mr English is a puzzle. Make no mistake: he wants the top job and in good time before the 2002 election. But does he want it enough? Is he hungry for it? His public conduct has suggested otherwise to too many colleagues, observers and bystanders.

Mr English has abundant strategic thinking skills. He is very smart and economically literate. One-to-one and in small groups he connects easily and unpretentiously with ordinary folk. He seems an obvious leader.

But critics say he spends too much energy strategising at 10,000 metres and too little battling at ground level. That he too readily sees the other point of view, a fatal failing in opposition. That his gaffe last week – appending a cover note to a staffer’s generous economic assessment, thereby laying himself open to the exact embarrassment which transpired – is in character.

Even when he revs himself up, as he has done sporadically over the past few months, his trademark drawl blunts the effect.

But if not Mr English, who? There is fitful talk of Gerry Brownlee, who has presence and a quick tongue but is still a tenderfoot in parliamentary terms and has yet to prove the necessary intellect and substance.

Which leaves . . . Mrs Shipley. Well, no it doesn’t, say some of the most astute analysts in the party. Which leaves . . . a knot that needs the likes of a Boag to untie.