How long will John Key stick around? Even before Kevin Rudd was suddenly rolled last month, this question was doing the rounds in the Wellington political hothouse.
The speculation goes like this: Key has not come to the top job with a burning ambition to change the world in a particular way, as distinct from a desire to do some good; he is not a career politician despite a teenage desire to be Prime Minister; he is not a loser and won’t want to go out on a loss; he has the sort of personality that could enjoy time at the top and then move on.
Longtime politics-watchers scoff, with reason. Leaders like to go on and on and on, as Margaret Thatcher said. But Key has brought a rare lightness of spirit to the top. Opening an exhibition of portraits of Prime Ministers in November last year, he self-mocked that he had been told when getting into politics: “Don’t do it. It will be the biggest mistake of your life.” And, scanning the biographies: “All political careers end in a bad way, so get over it.”
That was a year after Helen Clark’s near-four-decade-long dedication to politics ended in a big defeat for her and her party. She (and Thatcher) proved the rule: leaders almost always have to be taken out, by voters or by their party.
But Clark then went up, not down: like Labour predecessor Mike Moore and former National Deputy Prime Minister Don McKinnon, she netted a high-level international job. Key’s engaging personality might well similarly elevate him from the ninth floor.
But is he serious enough? Contrast Clark’s and his briefings to delegations accompanying them offshore, as retailed by some who have experienced both: Clark’s detailed information and instructive; Key’s a self-deprecating joke or two, matey advice and good cheer.
Add into the mix the gulf between Key’s written speech notes and what he actually tells audiences. Audiences, particularly of businesspeople, often leave enthused by Key’s energy and optimism and with a much more uplifting sense of his purpose than they would get from the formal speech.
Sure, there is an undertow of disbelievers, sceptics wanting hard policy and action and ACT adherents wanting much smaller government. But general feedback into the National party from its sorts of people is strongly positive.
National has a leader who can win power, win hearts and minds and keep Labour out. And one likely to edge, term by term, in a business-friendly direction, as John Howard did in Australia.
So this coming weekend at Sky City, close by the casino, the party will celebrate its leader. Just as Labour celebrated Clark nine years ago.
The lesson Labour learnt under Clark is that power is more satisfying than purity.
National has always thought that. Only when a government gets out of synch, does the party, or parts of it, get querulous about policy.
This happened four times in the 30 years (21 years in office) from 1970 to 1999: in the late Holyoake years of 1970 and 1971; in the last five Muldoon years of 1979-84; in the short radical reign of Ruth Richardson of 1991-92; and in the 20 months of coalition with Winston Peters 1996-98.
Key’s moderate, Howard-style, bit-by-bit-term-by-term National-leaning policy evolution should be in tune with a party that went through 30 years of seesawing positioning and wants to settle back into long-term government commanding the centre.
There are two complications to this comfortable scenario.
One is the structure of the next government. This term Key has a super-majority, with ACT to support some measures and the Maori party to support others and deliver some Maori voters.
If in the next term National needs both parties for a majority (likely if, say, Labour gets 38 per cent and the Greens 6 per cent), managing their antithetical positions to pass contentious legislation will be very challenging — or paralysing.
Even if there is a super-majority again (a real possibility), can Key keep both in the tent?
He has given the Maori party some big mana wins and whanau ora. There is not much more mana he can deliver without upsetting conservative National members and voters. Whanau ora has potential to embarrass if not very tightly managed.
On the other side, Rodney Hide has had some big wins in deregulation and local government this term plus some totemic wins. What can Key give him in a second term that doesn’t scare the centre? (Might Hide look elsewhere to continue his career: for example, the Auckland mayoralty in 2013?)
And all the while, the economy will not be flying high and might even have another bad turn, given the debt-driven turmoil and huge uncertainties in the global economy. The 2014 election might look grim. Will Key want to risk a loss?
The point is that so far Key has not hit any big bumps in the road nor has had to make any really hard decisions. That has maximised the openings in the clouds for his sunny personality to shine through on his party.
So it will shine this coming weekend. And his faithful will bask.