The end of the yellow brick road

Jenny Shipley is gutsy. She showed that in a losing campaign in 1999. She showed it again on Monday night, conceding defeat to Bill English’s promoters. Can English match that gutsiness?

He will need to. He is now head to head with a hardened campaigner in Helen Clark, pragmatic to her back teeth when the public opinion chips are down. See how quickly she read the mood on troops for America. See how she wrapped herself in the flag over Air New Zealand.

English will also need hunger, lashings more of it than he has demonstrated so far. He is up against a Prime Minister who is ravenously hungry to keep the top job.

Last year he agonised through the winter whether he really wanted the leadership. He decided he did. But he also decided he was not going to campaign for it.

He did have to campaign for deputy in February. But not hard. He had the numbers from the start, so it was more showing the flag. In the event it was just another step in a career that has been not so much up a ladder as along a yellow brick road.

But now the yellow brick road has come to an end. Unless a cataclysm sweeps the props from under Helen Clark’s government, English is going to have to slug it out across the rough terrain of cut and thrust politics if he is to get to the very top.

He starts with a powerful attribute: his aw-shucks “one-of-us-ness” with ordinary folk. Though he shares with Clark an offputting incapacity for small talk, he can be engaging and plausible in small groups — and he doesn’t overawe. His dishy and brainy wife Mary is a strong connecting force. Their boisterous kids are a bonus.

Shipley — close-bound family, small-town ethos — had “one-of-us-ness”, too. But, inexplicably, she masked it behind a mistaken belief that the National flag needed to be stained ever bluer at the very time when voters were making it clear they wanted more and more grey.

English is an instinctive centrist, the nearest to a modern conservative National has in its upper ranks.

Conservatives seek an ordered, integrated society, with stable personal (or family), civic, economic and political institutions. There is a strong emphasis on individual achievement and responsibility, to which modern conservatives add mechanisms to enhance individual opportunity and alleviate misfortune.

English translates that as maintaining the welfare state, but making it more efficient, flexible, consumer-responsive and value-for-money. He also promotes continued economic reform, but results-based, not ideological.

English is conservative in another sense: on abortion. He is, after all, Catholic. But, while he argues the case for reform, he defers to the liberal majority.

He also has much to learn about the gay life. Jenny Shipley, though a Presbyterian parson’s daughter, made a point of going to the Hero parade. A few months back a gay man of some prominence in the party set up a dinner with a group of gays. English was typically initially wary on this unfamiliar territory, then inquisitive and eventually relaxed.

So he is not a stick-in-the-mud conservative of the tweed-suit and twinset sort. He knows the party needs a broader congregation to win the 180,000 extra voters he told the conference in July it needs next year. And he will aim to find and win them.

That means real, not token, connections with Maori and Pacific islanders. Wife Mary, part-Samoan, has given him an entree to Pacific communities. But he will have his work cut out if he is to graft on to National values the biculturalism demanded as the price of their support by the new ginger group of middle-class Maori who have turned up this year.

A broader congregation also means real roles for women and for far more women, especially since he is up against a woman opponent. When National made Sue Wood president in 1982 it did so with a hospital pass, Sir Robert Muldoon’s goetterdaemerung. It handed Shipley the prime ministership in 1997 with another hospital pass, a bad coalition and the twilight of an economic revolution.

Breaking this habit poses a neat conundrum for English. Born of a strong woman and married to another, he will recognise strong women when he sees them. But will he harness or be harnessed by them?

There is another sense in which English is no stick-in-the-mud conservative. He is not quite 40, a standard-bearer of the post-Muldoon generation. He came into the House after the big battles in the party over protection and the free market had been decided in favour of the latter.

He made this point yesterday, both to point up a distinction with Shipley and Clark, who have not been able to leave that battleground, and to reject the centrist label. He is, he insists, twenty-first century.

But, of course, if his version of how we should respond to the challenges of this new century is to succeed he has to convince middle New Zealand — that is, the centre. That is where the big political blocks meet in combat and where elections are still essentially decided.

Moreover, Clark has occupied that ground. She is now redefining it. English doesn’t have a moment to lose.

But for that he needs a strategy. He refused to join the Shipley bandwagon in 1997 because he saw, correctly, no evidence of a strategy. Now he is open to the same charge.

English is good at thinking — sometimes too good for a politician, too ready to see alternative options. His speeches can read at times a bit like essays, replete with precise subtleties, reflecting a good intellect. He could barely at times conceal his disdain for Shipley’s obtuseness, last week’s examples of which were the final straws with colleagues.

But English must now turn supple thinking into hard policy. And for that he will need to build a team and support.

First, he needs higher-calibre people in the leader’s office than Shipley assembled. Some will come from president Michelle Boag’s networks. (She has just appointed a livewire new director-general, Allan Johnston.)

Then English must maximise the output of a very uneven caucus. He claims to have begun while deputy. But there is a great deal more to do.

Then he needs to convince National’s core constituencies. MPs have swallowed misgivings about him because the alternative was worse. The party conference was lukewarm to him. Auckland business attitudes to him may be starting to defrost but real warmth will need a lot more electricity.

And that is all before he goes after those 180,000 extra votes. The past month’s polling showed a bigger gap between Labour and National than in the 1999 election, a huge 16-point margin between left and right and only a marginal rise for National on its election result.

OK, English said yesterday, he focuses on the long term. He meant that in terms of his approach to policy, which he wants to be forward-looking, not reactive. But he might just as well have been referring to the long march ahead to close that polls gap — a march that will not be along a yellow brick road.