Party time for a party on a roll towards power

Members, money and momentum and a rival obligingly tripping up repeatedly — what more could a party want for its new leader’s first full conference?

David Benson-Pope kindly set the stage by getting himself sacked for once again not telling the whole story.

Down the ladder a departmental chief executive chose the less wrong of two wrong options but mucked it up with another wrong decision which caused his boss to wrongly write in an article that the minister wasn’t involved.*

Actually henchman Steve Hurring’s initial phone call involved the minister. An act of a staffer in a ministerial office is an act of the minister. Sir Roger Douglas understood this in 1986 when he tendered his resignation for an office underling’s mistake whereby 46 people got copies of his Budget slightly before release time. (Michael Cullen has tacked differently over the Reserve Bank blunder.)

Sorting out the travesty of according quasi-public service status to hacks in today’s politicised ministerial offices would logically be one of John Key’s first acts in government if he meant what he said about political neutrality last week.

So Benson-Pope, tough guy, art collector, effective project manager, city council fixit man, first-class teacher and target of a low-life smear campaign, passes into political history. Labour takes yet another hit.

In itself this hit probably doesn’t cost many votes. But an accumulation of mistakes, blunders and offsides eventually corrodes trust.

In Jenny Shipley’s government, as a number of Key’s shadow ministers well know, that point was reached in April 1999 with Murray McCully’s Tourism Board interference and the electricity price rises which followed Max Bradford’s industry reorganisation. Helen Clark’s government is nudging that point now.

Labour is glued to a near-five-year poll downtrend. Only if — a very large if — it can reverse that trend by February will it have serious odds in next year’s election.

Conversely, National is glued to a strong near-five-year uptrend. Last year it looked as if it might have flattened off but this year, with Key in his stride and helped by Clark’s mishandling of the smacking bill, it got back on trend early. Its lead is now 12 per cent.

Polls are only part, and a slippery part, of the story. Deeper evidence of National’s strength is in strong membership figures, willingness to get involved, money sloshing in — and a gruffer determination to get Clark out.

National didn’t match Labour on the ground in 2005. While Labour appears not to have lost any of its 2005 numbers and energy, National is likely to outgun it in 2008. It won’t need the Brethren to run phone banks on its behalf.

Key’s and president Judy Kirk’s task this weekend will be to keep expectations realistic.

Key and his MPs are now generally on-message in saying “if”, not “when”, about being in government and sometimes adding “fortunate”. Bill English will give delegates his usual warning of the distasteful need to work with disparate support parties.

Kirk also talks feet-on-the-ground. She has, in Chris Simpson, a low-key nuts-and-bolt general manager. For marketing flair, she has Simpson’s bouncy 2005 predecessor, Steven Joyce, actively involved.

That leaves two bits of the jigsaw.

The first is Key himself. He is personable, accessible and broadly in tune with middle New Zealand. He has one-of-us-ness plus extraordinariness, a powerful combination. He learns fast and doesn’t repeat mistakes. He absorbs information and makes definitive decisions. These are all Prime Minister-in-waiting qualities.

But he has yet to prove he has a policy compass: many National supporters are unsure where he will take them. He can recite the party’s principles and he does helicopter policy, dropping a specific pointer here and there. But he does not yet convey a Clark-like directional predictability.

There are also wide gaps in his knowledge, not just in the arcana of foreign policy, where he is prone to gaffes, but even in economics.

It is English’s job to fill those gaps with solid policy thinking that underpins the policy snapshots. But, reflecting English’s finicky caution, the discussion papers are way behind schedule.

The party is unfussed. It says it won’t produce much definitive policy before early next year, to limit Labour’s opportunity to copy it. MPs are still seeking advice and submissions.

Hence at the conference the policy sessions, aside from light-relief remit workshops, are focused safely on the economy (necessarily), law and order (where Simon Power has the high ground) and health (Tony Ryall has been trialling fresh ideas), plus shorter slots for education (formerly English’s brief) and the Resource Management Act (where Nick Smith fixed policy three years ago).

That leaves Labour a small window of opportunity to change its spots (about which more here soon) and re-grab the initiative. But for now the momentum is National’s. Key should have a great party this weekend.

* Since this was written, I have been informed that the boss was informed but the deputy was not. So the boss’s article could have been correct but the subsequent report by the deputy (in the absence of the boss overseas) was written without a relevant piece of information.