The Key leadership and the also-rans

National finishes 2010 on top, where it has been since John Key became leader. But is it on top of the big questions? That bothers some of the party’s ardent supporters.

There are three main dimensions to the Key leadership.

One is connectivity. In his reactions to and actions in the two disasters Key was emotionally involved, not gushily or manipulatively, but unselfconsciously and matter-of-fact. Real but not overdone emotion goes a long way in a leader. It’s one-of-us-ness.

It marks an important difference between Key and Rudd. Both had (Key still has) large stocks of political capital. But Key has, and Rudd didn’t have, a large stock of personal capital. And he invests it.

The second dimension to the Key leadership is that he is still learning the prime ministerial job. Helen Clark came to it after years of high-level preparation. Key helicoptered in to the National party in 2001 and fast-tracked to the ninth floor.

He has three gaps: a period abroad which disconnected him from that part of our history; a lack of deep roots and so power-bases in the party; and lack of experience running the “loose coalition of the self-employed” (Bill English’s description) that is a party and a cabinet.

The plus in that is freshness, to which Key adds accurate instincts. The minus is that he often has to feel his way to a response and has paid too much attention to polls and focus groups and too little to his instincts.

The third dimension to Key’s leadership is the policy direction. Key’s mantra is “what works”, to which he adds a business-friendly (and, as this year went on, a union-unfriendly) lean.

So Key is open for business but does not have a flaming vision. That frustrates some of his strongest supporters who would like him to use his popularity to engineer the economic “step-change” he said he would. He is not investing his political capital.

So his government is more a supermarket than a Weta Digital. If excellence is to be found in the Key prime ministerial business, it will be in skilful stacking of the shelves rather than brilliant new thinking that captures a special place in the world.

The upshot is that it is often unclear where Key stands on an issue. He muses on a topic, raising hopes or fears which are then deflated when the musing doesn’t turn into action. He shifts his ground: the classic this year was his all-the-way from definitely digging up some schedule 4 land to none-at-all in the space of three months.

Prime Ministers’ statements are gospel — or are in a standard-issue Prime Minister. There were signs toward the end of this year that Key was beginning to get that. His press conferences became more curt and less convivial.

Put all that together and you get a man who easily assembled his four-way support arrangement, with both ACT and the Maori party in the tent but who, as issues have hardened into actual policy or not, is finding the tent isn’t actually big enough and some of the pegs are out and guy ropes adrift.

The Labour party was slow to understand Key’s power because it is a personal power and doesn’t fit the rulebook. Gradually this year it has learnt that Key is unlikely to self-destruct, as David Lange did. He is a real-world guy, even if the real-world he got his training in is worlds away from the political world.

That has made Phil Goff’s job tough. No matter how nice he is, he is not as nice as Key. No matter how pragmatic he is, it is Key’s “what works” that commands the headlines. No matter how many mini-scandals Pete Hodgson unearths for him, he can’t get the mud to stick. Richard Worth and Pansy Wong did wrong but that hasn’t tipped the polls.

And Goff has had Chris Carter to deal with. Phil Twyford’s selection for Te Atatu was in part a keep-Carter-quiet deal.

But Goff’s contribution to the party as (but for a political shock) he edges towards retirement is the way he has allowed his MPs to explore and flourish and enabled a much deeper rethinking of policy principles than is usual in a first term in opposition.

The Red Alert blog is an innovation that commands a sizable readership. Annette King’s big move in social policy to a child-centred base is the biggest policy rethink since the 1980s. Far from sliding into dotage, King has had a political heart transplant and is booming.

The baby-boomers, who transformed the party and, in the 1980s, the country, are not quite over.

The party Labour will look to when it does form a government, the Greens, had a good, if unspectacular year. And they are united behind a credible, if unspectacular, leadership.

ACT is disunited, torn apart by electoral dependency on an idiosyncratic leader who has driven away purists with miscues last year and this. The Maori party has whanau ora to look forward to but has been split by the cursed foreshore and seabed.

Winston Peters is circling, hoping to be 2011’s political shock. It is a shock Goff and Key could do without. But that’s for next year. For now National is on top.