You know the cabinet thinks it has a public relations problem when it puts the bovver boy in the ring. Steven Joyce has that rare gift of seeming to smile while heaving an interviewer (or toughing it out in Parliament), topdressing flannel with “facts” the way a marketer does.
When Key gets in a jam, as over the mismanaged Henry inquiry, his body language shifts. He tries to sidestep — thus we have boat people coming, weapons of mass destruction and now Al Qaeda. He gives assurances that get falsified. Grant Robertson can then say he is slipping and sliding.
Usually, Key larks around in question time in Parliament, nyah-nyahing opponents: Greens are “fruit-loops” and “the devil-beast”. He is the shock-jock Prime Minister and out in the sticks that goes down a treat — though a National supporter a recent industry conference muttered to me about swear-words in his otherwise well-received off-the-cuff speech.
But when the serial whiplashes of Kim Dotcom, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) and the Henry inquiry kept catching him even when he skipped to the side, a harried grump banished his breezy humour.
Most people retreat when embarrassed. Key instead lashed out when his stagey tea with John Banks in the 2011 election campaign was recorded. The media were, he said, on a slippery slope to News of the World-type criminality. In April the media were “knuckleheads” over how GCSB boss Ian Fletcher got appointed.
Likewise, when the Dominion Post ran a leak of Rebecca Kitteridge’s report on the GCSB — a report due for full publication a few days later, so national security was not at issue — Key did not settle for some behind-scenes questions. He lashed out with a formal inquiry which, with help from his chief of staff (who speaks and acts with prime ministerial authority), went awry.
Result: two bodies on the floor, maybe more to come; the news media bristling about “privacy” (a bit preciously in the 2010s digital world of ubiquitous information, now widely used and misused by firms and states); constitutionalists agitating over ministerial intrusion on Parliament’s “sovereign” territory (though Parliament has the sovereign power to disclose information); yet another inquiry, by Parliament’s privileges committee, which has subpoena and penal powers; and more questions for Key.
A question still hanging (at the time of writing): by which conduit did Winston Peters get wind of the Peter Dunne focus back in May?
Key proved the old adage: don’t order an inquiry without a good idea of the sort of answer it will give.
Last week’s twist in the Henry inquiry sideshow blanked out one of Key’s more important announcements: connecting up schools to enable the sort of digital learning assistance that has transformed low-decile schools in Auckland’s eastern suburbs.
Hekia Parata and Nikki Kaye will take that to National’s conference this coming weekend and will get due praise. And Key will be lionised there for the party’s high poll ratings.
When not embarrassed, Key is engaging and likeable and adept at catching the mood of those he is speaking to or mingling with, whether an interest group or gathering at home or a foreign leader or official: those on his trade mission to China were much impressed. At his best, which is most of the time, Key is a uniting Prime Minister and though he is falling out of favour with some voters, he is in no danger (yet) of succumbing to David Shearer.
It is that easy amiability — the flipside of what often seems a lack of attention to detail — that enabled him and canny (and unifying) Len Brown to sort the Auckland transport standoff. It has kept onside the Maori party, increasingly in opposition to government initiatives and bills. It is why Key has pole position if the 2014 election leaves National and Labour-Greens each short of a majority.
That question will be at the back of delegates’ minds as they sit in respectful darkness listening to ministers this weekend. With whom and how will National put together a working majority after the next election?
One question has been answered, at least as ACT sees it. At a breakfast with ACT supporters on Friday, Key assured them (so they say) National will back ACT in Epsom. (Will he do the same for Dunne now that Dunne has bent his liberal principles to give the GCSB bill a one-vote majority?)
Even so, Key still may need Peters and/or Colin Craig or someone new. The Key-Peters dance over the next 15 months will be great viewing.
But that would hobble the cabinet’s vigorous reform programme. Hence the urgency this term. And hence the importance to the party of the man who in 2002 could not lead it effectively.
Bill English can mix it. As a young flanker he was fearless. But (the odd mistake aside) his value to the cabinet — and why he is admired in Australia and even in Hong Kong — is his strategic urge. Without its geek, the government would be adrift.
As some at this weekend’s conference well understand.