Matthew Hooton writes about Bill English’s next steps once he is installed as Prime Minister.
It’s odd that John Key abandoning the prime ministership has been interpreted as noble.
Certainly, the decision makes sense for Mr Key. He leaves office the week of the best economic and fiscal forecasts of his prime ministership and with his poll numbers still strong. He has sidestepped any blame should either head south.
But whereas a week ago there were questions about whether Labour could even survive as a major party, the main effect of Mr Key’s resignation is to radically raise the probability of the Labour-Green menace taking power next year. That risk has only been compounded by Mr Key’s uncharacteristically clumsy attempt to seamlessly transfer the prime ministership to his deputy and maintain the hegemony of his inner cabinet of Bill English, Steven Joyce, Murray McCully, Gerry Brownlee and Paula Bennett.
Broadly, the plan was to continue the Key government without Mr Key. Mr English would become prime minister, Mr Joyce would take over as finance minister, Mr Brownlee would return to MBIE, Mr McCully would carry on as foreign minister and Ms Bennett would be social policy czar and deputy prime minister. Everyone else would stay roughly where they were, perhaps with the exception of English loyalists Nick Smith, Nathan Guy and Michael Woodhouse, who could expect a little bit more.
Securing acquiescence from National’s backbench relied on shock and awe and there is no doubt the shock part occurred on Monday. National MPs who have never known anything other than Mr Key’s leadership, and have never really understood that true power lies in the caucus room, initially reacted like the distraught children of divorced parents: daddy had just walked out and they were desperate that mummy, in the form of Mr English, not desert them too.
As the week developed, they worked out it might be time to grow up and take over the running of the household themselves. The irony is that assertiveness on the backbench should ultimately be to Mr English’s advantage.