Phase one of the reconstruction and recovery is over. Now for phase two. The John Key National party will have more of the characteristics that made it the dominant party in decades past.
Don Brash will go down in the party’s folklore as having brought it back from the brink — members, money and, for a time, momentum. He re-aggregated the right’s vote and laid the platform for the 2008 drive for power.
But this year, despite an improved front bench, the momentum of reconstruction and recovery flagged. Brash lacked credibility in the political centre National must now win. He didn’t learn politics and he didn’t have the instinct. He made too many mistakes. His silly injunction, from which his lawyer apparently tried to dissuade him, left him with a humiliating backdown and an ignominious exit.
Key has much to learn yet. But he does learn (including from mistakes) and he has accurate instincts. He will grow quickly into the job.
And it will be Key. Emailers were yesterday asking Bill English not to stand. National needs a clean and solid change after three messy coups.
But English knows the party, is deeply of the party. Key has none of that. One of his toughest challenges will be to acquire that sense of party.
National’s first recovery phase, under Brash, relied heavily on marketing — that was Steven Joyce’s strong point. Brash also relied too often to people who either had no more political skill than he had or were not steeped in the party’s ethos. A party is an organism. Brash was an adjunct leader.
National’s challenge now is to emulate Labour — to be more a political organism and less a marketing venture, to have a stronger sense of what to do with power and to fill the large gaps in its ranks (Maori, for example) and so make itself “national” — as it was in its post-1945 heyday.
New general manager Chris Simpson is of that more “party” ilk, old hands say. Peter Goodfellow’s replacement of Alan Tower on the board in July injected quiet professionalism. The next need, in good time, is a hard-edged president who builds on Judy Kirk’s restoration of harmony to make a grunty election machine.
It adds up to the politics not of radical change but of incremental improvement and adjustment. It is the politics of the centre, leaning to the right, solidly based in a broad and patient constituency.
Is Key the leader for that? His working life in a back-yourself, lone-ranger industry says no. His thin party background says no. But his state house childhood and his interest in fixing South Auckland say yes. So does his openness to learn — and English could write the curriculum.
There is another dimension. Winston Peters has a searing dislike of Brash which has made him a strong ally of Helen Clark. With Brash gone, Key’s National has the opportunity quietly to woo Peters back to his political home. Labour’s salad days are over.