An attractive fellow — but a leader?

Back in the bad old Bolger days, the big boys of international pharmaceuticals heavied a hayseed Health Minister on the government’s impudent purchasing practices. They even enlisted the United States Ambassador.

All they got was a polite hearing.

Around the same time a young minister was repeatedly white-anted by a dissenting associate minister to whom he was harnessed in coalition. He told his Prime Minister either the tormentor went or he did. The Prime Minister said it might be he who went and not the associate. He stood his ground and won.

Bill English — the hayseed and the tough young minister — is chronically underestimated by opponents though also often overestimated by admirers. He is as much an unknown as a known quantity, an elusive enigma despite a disarming openness: “I learnt not to wear a tie when changing nappies.”

Now, just pushing 40, English is one step away from Prime Minister. But what a step! How will he manage it?

Contrast his predecessor: Jenny Shipley had nothing of English’s intellect and erudition, a degree in commerce and literature honours.

Shipley tried to make up with structure. She worked to briefs very efficiently. But there is no bureaucrats’ brief for a Prime Minister with a losing hand and an Opposition leader having to play catchup.

So Shipley held her cards close to give the illusion of structure. Myriad instructions were issued, with, one of her senior ministers says, “authority lines going everywhere but all leading back to her”. It was regimented but ultimately a muddle of conflicting positions.

English is more like fellow Irish Catholic Jim Bolger, a colleague says, relaxed about subordinates exploring ideas and options.

The lesson is life in a large family (English was No 10 of 12), in which, a friend says, “you have to queue for 20 minutes for the bathroom. That is a very different from if you can just walk in there”.

Yet every advance of English’s political career looks just like someone “just walking in there”. It looks pre-ordained, from mother Nora’s early ambitions for him all the way to the top of his party. What’s the secret?

* He listens. Actually, you have to take that on trust because in conversation he’s like a lizard, laconic and heavy-lidded. It goes in, say close associates, every word, every new idea, every nuance. He can spout it back to you months later. (So does Helen Clark.)

* His decision-making style is to “roll around in a problem”, a senior colleague says, thinking it through in depth and breadth or thinking aloud with a group: bureaucrats recall a whiteboard routine, working round and through an issue in real time. He draws on a wide range of people, another says, many of them confidants: colleagues, family, old schoolmates, new acquaintances.

* Once the thinking has been done, he is decisive and once a decision is made, he sticks to it, says a senior MP, adding that he has sound judgment.

* He devolves. “You won’t see him down in the trenches solving disputes,” says an associate. But “he will hold people to account”. Shipley was an excellent line manager who couldn’t step up to general manager; English is a big-picture general manager. New deputy leader Roger Sowry, a former chief whip, and the quality staff he quickly appointed to his office will be crucial to implementation.

* He divides his personal and professional lives, protective of his family. Few in politics have managed that balancing act and he has yet to be tested on it at the top.

* He is a loner — aloof, his critics say. English in reply points to his patient cementing over nearly a year of internal discussion of the superannuation policy response to Michael Cullen’s grand fund [[ ]]. But he has yet to prove he can build a team. He doesn’t glad-hand.

* Does he deliver? No, splutter some fellow MPs, demanding a tangible economic policy in place of the high-level pronouncements that have marked his time as shadow finance minister, stratospherically above what business looks for. Defenders say it was trapped in the Shipley mincer: the thinking has been done and policy can readily be rolled out.

And is there passion? Will we feel urgency and excitement? Sure, he occasionally loses his rag which some might call passion. But real passion that sweeps up voters and makes a national leader out of an attractive fellow? We’ve yet to see that.