A star candidate for the power game

Look through the smoke of the presidential battle at this coming weekend’s National party conference and whom do you see? Simon Power.

Take note of that name. It has a tailor-made feel to it.

Jenny Shipley has plucked Power from the very back benches to make the conference’s closing speech on “A National future”.

A cheap ploy? Put up a 31-year-old to paint National as a party of the future and with a future? Power is not a cheap ploy.

He is personable, tall, good-looking verging on handsome. A charmer. Possessor of an easy confidence that does not threaten, and instead pleases, his elders. Intelligent, a genuine contributor to debate in the House from the very start. The worst I have heard of him from his own side is that he can be “impulsive”. (Well, he’s young.)

In short, Power has the makings of a possible future party leader.

Certainly, Michelle Boag has spotted him for frontline duties, as a way of presenting a fresher National face, if she makes president on Sunday.

Versace-clad Boag, mistress of youthful makeup, knows a bit about image. The bedrock of her campaign is a symbolic gesture to the public that National is willing to change. A young brand-builder, Bronwyn Pullar, who rocketed to the party’s Auckland publicity chair in May, would be her publicity boss.

Boag also has bags of energy, can dig deep in corporate pockets and, judging by the presidential campaigns she ran for Geoff Thompson and Lindsay Ferguson and by her own, could bring skill to general election campaigning.

Incumbent John Slater, who has done a worthy job and made some innovations, is not big on symbolism and, unfortunately for him, the parliamentary party has not yet succeeded in any public opinion-shifting symbolic change either. The rank and file, contemplating Tony Blair’s demolition of the British Conservatives, is bewildered at Blair-level polls for Helen Clark.

Slater has been campaigning tirelessly after losing 4-1 at the regional conferences. On his side: some nervousness that Boag is too much Auckland eastern-suburbs, too aggressive and too much new-right and new-money for the sort of modestly-reforming conservative stance English has in mind for the party.

English? Surely this is Shipley’s party still and surely English looks less a leader-in-waiting now than he did two years ago. (Perhaps it is in the Southland water. Did not his famous precursor, Brian Talboys, who was marked early as a future leader and rose to deputy, demur when a plausible majority of MPs urged him to knock off Sir Robert Muldoon?)

Yes, it is Shipley’s party still. But, though less than a decade older than English, she is a whole cohort older in political terms (so is most of the top Labour echelon). Shipley was part of the Douglas-Richardson revolution and as Prime Minister tried to recapture some of that spirit.

English, as a later arrival, is post-revolutionary, a modest reformer (on results-based, not ideological, lines). He has the conservative’s strong instinct for the political centre which National must recapture and a strategic bead on the generational shift that will increasingly colour elections in the 2000s.

Spurred by some caucus agitation, he has recently initiated a change in policy development, hitherto overseen by Jenny Shipley and coordinated by Max Bradford and on track to miss the spring-offensive deadline Shipley promised party faithful in May. English will join a small top-level group to pull together the extensive background policy work that has been going on, context it in some over-arching 2000s principles and start getting it in front of the public.

Power fits the English mould. Not wholly: his Catholicism is lapsed, he is a moral liberal, he counts himself in a different political generation from 39-year-old English and he is still fleshing out his policy stance. But he is broadly Englishite.

His speech will urge a restoration of idealism to inspire a “gluggy” populace. But this is not the ideological idealism of the Reaganite (or Richardsonian) era. It is rooted in practicality, though Power also distinguishes it from the reactive pragmatism of the sort he thinks Blair and Bill Clinton “used up”.

Watch out for him this weekend. You will see a lot more of him over this decade.