It's a matter of if the boot fits

If there is one thing that will bring Helen Clark down eventually it is hubris.

The Oxford Dictionary defines hubris as presumption, pride, excessive self-confidence. In simple parlance it means: too big for one’s boots.

Calling a snap election — and let’s be clear, that is what this election is — is an act of the Sovereign. Under our archaic constitution the monarch decides when to dissolve Parliament and so when you vote.

And these days the Prime Minister tells the monarch — or, rather, the monarch’s stand-in, the Governor-General — what to do.

So who is the Sovereign? Helen Regina.

Clark made a point last week of distinguishing her carefully foreshadowed and calculated lunge for a majority from Sir Robert Muldoon’s “schnapps” election in 1984, an allusion to his having drunk hard liquor on the evening of his sudden announcement and slurring his words on camera.

Clark is careful with alcohol, though she enjoys a glass (yes, of chardonnay). But in the past few months there have been signs of a slight tipsiness with power. Why else would this normally risk-averse person take the gamble she has?

Her whacking of the police for investigating her art signatures; her over-reaction to the long-telegraphed Greens’ ultimatum on genetic modification: these show glimpses of hubris.

To be a top leader requires not just high skill, thorough preparation, application, clarity of decision-making and discipline, all qualities Clark displays in abundance and account for most of her amazing poll approval ratings. To be a top leader also requires a touch of humility.

A leader must allow herself to be led as well as to lead.

Curiously, humility was an ingredient of Muldoon’s power in his early years as Prime Minister. He was tough and he demolished enemies in Te Rauparaha fashion. But he also conveyed a sort of modest fellow-feeling with common folk.

And then he lost that over time. And when he lost it, he lost his power. Hubris overcame him and undermined him.

Clark does closely attend to public opinion. She has also developed a common touch. The once aloof, unbending bluestocking, so shy she could be painful to watch, is turning folksy, working a room, plunging into a crowd, hunting out photo opportunities, clowning for the camera. People are beginning to like her.

Being liked is crushingly difficult for opponents to counter.

Not that Bill English is not likeable. If anything, his likeability is an obstacle. Voters might see him as that and not much more.

English showed in the prize fight a couple of weeks back that he is one of the lads. His awareness ratings lifted. But slugging it out in the boxing ring is not the act of an alternative Prime Minister.

If Clark is showing signs she might get too big for her boots, English still appears too small for his.

That is the challenge for his minders and him these next six weeks: to get him looking and sounding like an alternative Prime Minister — in the way he carries himself, the way he walks, the way he talks.

That was how Clark saved Labour in 1996 when it teetered on the brink of minor party status. She took lessons, made of herself an alternative Prime Minister.

Not a particularly convincing one initially, mind. But enough to score positive headlines in the infamous “worm” debate with Jim Bolger, enough to give Labour sorts of people cause to vote Labour instead of the Alliance or New Zealand First.

We have yet to see whether English can take that step up in this coming campaign. My guess, watching him at regional conferences, is that he can, just.

But he hasn’t made it easy for himself. He left it far too late to take the leadership, so he has too little time to register his leadership with voters. And, unlike Clark in 1996, he eschewed professional presentational advice earlier this year on the ground that it was too expensive.

Too expensive? Does that mean he doesn’t want to be Prime Minister enough? He’s chipper, remarkably so given the polls, but is he hungry?

Clark is hungry, ruthlessly hungry, more than any of the other nine Prime Ministers I have watched. She looks and sounds a winner.

And so far she is attuned to and respectful of middle New Zealand. That tempers her power, holds hubris in check. But in a second term?