Marketing ploy or the real McCoy?

John Key National leader is becoming a fait accompli in the media and in many people’s minds. But is he in fact an accomplished leader in waiting?

No one quite knows yet.

And no one would need to know yet if Don Brash had been tracking onward and upward to Prime Minister.

But he hasn’t been and isn’t. So the question National MPs didn’t want to have to ask themselves is on the table: who shall replace Brash (in due course), when, how and with whom as deputy?

It’s a question Key didn’t want asked, either. He would have been content to do a stint as Finance Minister before moving up.

That leisurely transition remains a possibility. But this year doubts have accumulated that Brash can become enough of a politician and acquire a wide enough grasp of policy to carry the party from 39 per cent a year ago to the 43-45 per cent needed to be sure of governing after 2008. Then came the affair and the dent in the “honest Don” brand.

So it may well be ready-or-not for the man from Merrill Lynch.

That doesn’t faze him. Throughout his working life in merchant banking Key thrived on bigger and tougher jobs, whether he was fully qualified for them or not. And he got marvellously rich on such gutsiness — a fortune of a million for every year of his life before he switched codes to politics in 2001-02.

That gutsiness is not bravado — Key is more the cucumber-cool type. But it does bother some fellow-MPs who think he doesn’t know enough politics or policy yet, doesn’t have the policy anchor hard slog in the engine-room provides (witness some of his musings-aloud) and would be too tempted too often to back himself (the traders’ magic elixir) and so produce unorthodox policy and preclude caucus collegiality. Those MPs fear a bumpy and possibly disastrous prime ministership — maybe, before that, a recipe for mishaps as leader of the Opposition.

And older hands worry that Key doesn’t know the National party well enough. He has not done time in the ranks. If National is to secure a long-run government next time it wins, the party and MPs must be much more in synch than in 1975-84 and 1990-99.

The Labour party enthusiastically shares these doubts. Forgetting David Lange’s five-year quickstep to leader, today’s greying front-bench clique think they could knock Key over. They talk darkly — but unspecifically — of incidents in his past life that will undo him when made public. And if that doesn’t neuter him, they think his inexperience and brashness will do for him.

Not so fast.

First, there is no rush to change leaders. For as long as a change might seem to be bowing to Labour pressure, there cannot be one. So, unless Brash throws in the towel, which his past says would be most out of character, any change is three, six, maybe nine, months away. A lot might happen, including a Brash recovery.

Second, Key learns fast. His transformation in six months in 2001 from raw merchant banker to victor over sitting MP Brian Neeson as Helensville candidate marked him out. In Parliament he has operated as if back at university doing an applied politics course. He makes mistakes but cheerfully learns from them and doesn’t repeat them.

Third, he is canny. Where Brash got in donkey deep with the Exclusive Brethren, Key heard warning bells. Perhaps it is the sort of sixth sense that got him through the shark-infested waters of financial deal-making. (Though he has got a bit closer to Murray McCully than a prudent reading of history would counsel.)

Fourth, Key is a beguiling mixture of charm, affability, approachability, intelligence, determination and, deep behind the mirror glass, a glint or two of cold steel. That made him the star of last year’s election campaign, the man who riled and rumbled Michael Cullen, as forbidding an opponent as anyone our politics.

And Key does it all without visible arrogance but also without a flicker of ingratiating humility. There is a sort of comfortable humour in Key but all the while also a focused seriousness — a really nice guy who is also tough and calculating.

And, fifth, he has an intuitive feel for the evolving National party, its principles and values. He hasn’t grown up with it, as Bill English has, and so has a lot to learn about what lurks in dark corners and what wears and doesn’t wear. But, unlike the well-heeled crowd he mixes easily with now — in fact, unlike most of today’s Labour MPs — he knows first-hand what life is like at the bottom from his state-house childhood days.

So while the businessman in him values low taxes, limited regulation and a small state, the state-house boy in him knows there are other dimensions to a successful society.

When he reaches for a catechism of principles to describe his party, he starts in the 1950s when National was coming to terms with the welfare state and mixing liberalism and social responsibility into its conservatism.

Whatever his innermost thoughts, he recognised the problems the Brash tone on race and women was causing for National-learning liberals, women and young people. After the election he came up with a useful reformulation: to talk of a one-country culture rather than, as many took Brash to be saying, a one-culture country.

So Key has more policy room for manoeuvre than Brash the classical liberal. For example, back in April he got excited by Singapore’s Biopolis, a huge government programme to attract, house and pay for bioscientists. In May he had no problem with the government’s interference in Telecom’s property rights in its unbundling decision. He has not ruled out compulsory superannuation.

Recent policy speeches have been a mixture of orthodoxy and outside-the-box musings-aloud. Among his notions:

* “Promote a low-tax environment for industries that are high-value, new and provide a genuine pathway for skilled New Zealanders to enter or return to. I would much rather have 10% of a lot of revenue which we currently don�t earn than 33% of nothing.”

* The government’s business tax review should have discussed aligning the top personal, company and trust rates, a zero rate of withholding tax for foreign investors from some countries, a 100 per cent write-off of research and development spending and plant and equipment purchases, a lower tax rate for new businesses or for greenfields plants in high-growth sectors and a longer tax-exemption time for new migrants.

* Harmonisation of business laws with Australia should be on a best-practice model but don’t reject out of hand the possibility that “second-best regulations may be more than offset by the benefit of common (trans-Tasman) standards”.

* “It’s a disgrace that we allow kids to leave after 10 or 11 years of schooling with no more than the most basic reading or maths skills. Not only is this a sickening waste of human capital; it is also setting kids up for a lifetime of failure and social exclusion.”

* “We need to start investing much more intensively in infrastructure” and be willing to let government debt rise to fund some of it.

And in the river of press statements he pours out he has implied significant public service staff cuts, though he also promises no cuts in actual services such as health and education and is promising more money for research, science and technology. Huh?

But is policy the key to Key? Or is the new boy who scrubs up brilliantly really more a marketing ploy than a credible candidate to manage the most complicated business in town?

This is, after all, the age of political marketing where creative directors set the tone, as in National’s funny, vicious diptych billboards last year. Key is a creative director’s dream.

Young, attractive, media-centred and marketing-savvy Tony Blair was wondrously successful for British Labour — and the Tories followed suit in making David Cameron — young, attractive and willing to shape policy for media appeal — their leader last year.

But what happens when a marketable fresh face meets a battle-hardened, experienced and knowledgeable warhorse? In Queensland Labor’s Peter Beattie won a third landslide this month and the Liberals’ marketable young, new-MP leader, Bruce Flegg, crashed and burned, thus helping wreck the National-Liberal coalition campaign.

Is this Key’s future against tough-as-old-boots, encyclopaedic, disciplined manager Helen Clark?

Maybe not. Key is the next generation on from the cabinet baby-boomers. He understands the more customised world his and subsequent generations grew up with. He is fresh, has a sixth-sense for danger and an intuition for what middle New Zealand will wear. And he is politically saleable.

But he has yet to prove depth and durability. Campaign star is one thing. It is quite another to climb the precipitous opposition slopes to the Beehive’s ninth floor and then run the government behemoth.

The fait is not yet accompli. But this guy develops fast.