Laid back like a lizard and a quick tongue to match

It’s the time of the year for political plaudits. My first goes to John Armstrong.

Armstrong does not do politics. He watches and analyses politics for this paper. He does that with honesty and clarity and every now and then with punch. One of his punches in 2003 knocked out Bill English.

For that honesty and clarity and punch he is much respected by peers and politicians. He is without superior in our trade.

And it was a great trade to be in this year. Scams, muckups, public relations disasters, wildly divergent polls and the sweatiest, closest-run, meatiest election in quarter of a century, with juicy dessert to follow in a bizarre new type of government that has a Foreign Minister who both is and isn’t.

Star of that contest was John Key, I wrote at election time, listing a rare concatenation of qualities. Now he is climbing the preferred prime minister rankings. He learns fast and he learns well. Armstrong made Key his politician of the year with good reason.

I can’t go that far yet. Key’s currency-dealer gut instincts for the most part serve him well but they are too thin to run a government. There is still a large gap between trader John and Prime Minister Key — even Treasurer Key.

And his side lost. As the National party used to say before it lost the art of winning, there is no second place in politics.

Which takes out Don Brash, too. He got National on the board with his tough believability but lost himself in the campaign, trading his PhD in economic principle for auction politics — then regressing to undergraduate post-election to make Wayne Mapp, PhD, “political correctness eradicator”.

The remarkable thing is that Brash and Key nearly got there. The unremarkable thing is that they lost in part because they were not ready. Next time, however…

They had company. It was a year for losers.

The leaders of all small parties, except the Maori party, lost, the Greens’ least (but they lost Rod Donald), Rodney Hide most. Prestige-hungry Winston Peters grabbed the baubles of high office but lost Tauranga (and nearly his party) and, if he doesn’t learn one adage, “head down and tail up” might end up proving another, “Be careful what you wish for…”

One winner won by losing. Paul Swain has resigned from “Swainy and boys”. He is now Mr Work-life Balance, valuing his new wife and one-year-old daughter above the baubles of office. Cherubic is the only way to describe him cooing over the baby who fired his midlife wobble.

Plenty of others are un-cherubic these days: David Benson-Pope, now seriously wounded, and the swag of Labour MPs who lost electorate seats, including Jim Sutton whose dismissal is arguably Helen Clark’s biggest mistake this year.

Yes, she makes mistakes, especially when her pride is at stake. But, make no mistake, Clark is a winner. This was her and Labour’s election.

It should have been a romp on the back of the debt-fuelled economic boom. And it should have been a rout at the hands of ordinary, once-Labour folk flustered by Treaty correctness and political correctness. So it was knife-edge.

Clark muttered darkly to one senior politician a couple of days after the big day that Labour’s big losses in the provinces were the product of too much social engineering. The conservative farm girl is increasingly evident in this supposedly “left” government.

And they breed ’em tough down on the farm. When others lost heads and hope in the final week as Labour’s own polling foretold doom, Clark mined her prodigious reserves. She is the sort of contestant who crashes the pain barrier to win, the sort whom in sport this country adulates.

But in this country politicians are sport, to be kicked around.

Which brings me to a man who has kicked around in politics for 30 years, mostly in the back rooms but with a profile, too.

In a tight election no one factor decides the outcome. Clark’s fighting spirit was critical, as were her ruthless nuclear attack on Brash and her massive bribes. But so, too, were National’s not-quite-readyness and too-hard Treaty line, the Maori party’s delivery of previously non-voting young Maori to Labour’s party vote — and Labour’s “registered non-vote” project.

Back in 2004 a few hard-headed dreamers reckoned Labour had a large dormant vote in state houses and low-income suburbs. They did a census, devised a strategy, ran a “factory” in the election’s second last week which blanketed those areas with scary you-will-lose-your-house-if-you-don’t-vote messages and put platoons on the ground to get them to the polls.

This was the work of many but one man gave it unique energy — a genial pig-in-muck in politics who charms money out of boardrooms into Labour’s war-chest.

He has the hooded eyes of a lizard but is quick as a lizard’s tongue to tap an idea or score a point — and too much a lover of the game not to make mistakes. He made a whopper at Budget time, which cost Labour dearly.

So he’s human. He’s my politician for 2005. He’s Labour president Mike Williams.