The waning of Key’s National: the arrogance and irony

The life cycle of any political party leader is clearly understood.  What we are seeing now, the vulnerable John Key, the floundering of previously successful people that surround him, and people previously loyal turning their backs on him didn’t just happen in the last four weeks.

The by-election simply has made it more visible in a shorter period of time.

When a new government takes charge, everyone is excited, full of ideas, and ready to go.  Ahead of them is the history of the previous government, something the voters got tired of.  Behind them?  Nothing.  They have yet to make a single mistake.

PMs and MPs are bright eyed and bushy tailed.  Nobody can criticise them on something they haven’t done, or failed to do.  They are new to their portfolios.  They are keen listeners and learners, willing to take in all the information officials and people on the ground are willing to impart.

From that pool of feedback, and some planning based on party ideology, a plan is made.  And it is good.  It always is.

The voters will generally see a government do things they promised to do to get into parliament in the first place.  This is expected.  It happens.  All is still good.

Wind forward to now.  

Same people.  Yet it all appears to go wrong.  What has changed?

For one, all of the people now have history.  Their shiny new armour they were wearing on day one is now dull, dented and damaged.  The bright white smiles have turned to weary PR grins.  The open and honest answers about plans for the future have turned to guarded ways to dodge the question about the past.

They now have a track record, and they can be criticised.  Instead of being open and eager, they are defensive and dig deep to maintain their positions, even if circumstances have changed.

Because of their apparent success over the preceeding years, they now feel they no longer have to ask everyone their opinion.  They have their own.  They have consciously or subconsciously filtered the people they take advice from to be a relatively tight and close circle.

They are now disconnected from real people.

When John Key is out there, he only sees crackpots and sycophants.  He’s had so much of it, he can’t even recognise when someone turns up with something genuine and important.  The same for his MPs.

Worse, factions that have always existed in caucus but were all working together have now changed to work on their own medium and long term aims.  The PM and his dream team are no longer told the truth by MPs.  If there is anything that can help John Key, he’s not told if it comes from a faction that doesn’t want him to know.

He’s now surrounded by people that he trusts, because they have delivered the goods previously.  But he doesn’t realise that it is much more subtle than that.  Previously, when someone in another faction saw that the PM might trip up on something, they would have warned him.  But now, they’ll just keep silent and let him trip up.

Sabin is a case in point.  If we are to believe John Key, and let’s assume he doesn’t lie for a moment, he didn’t know there was a problem.   Everyone else was keeping this information from him.  He’s either incredibly incompetent, or he was set up to fail.  And we know he’s not incompetent.

There is a lot of soft information that is swirling around all the time, and if you’re disconnected from it, you start flying politically blind.  We’ve seen it with Cunliffe.  We’re seeing it with Andrew Little.  And now we’re seeing it with John Key.

I used to hand some info up to the 9th floor when I thought it might be of interest.  For obvious reasons, that has stopped.  John Key has isolated himself, not just from me, but from many other voices that he previously allowed to come through.

Nobody told him what to do, but at least he had the wealth of information to consider when picking a path.

These days, he listens only to a few people, and asks questions through polls.   Problem with that is that unless you ask the right questions, the answers aren’t worth much.

For John Key fans, this is particularly sad news.  He’s been the garlic to the Leftie vampires, and we all get a bit nervous at the though that Johnnie the Leftie Slayer has lost his touch.   The stability we’ve felt for the years is now crumbling, and we don’t know what will happen next.

I’m sorry to tell you that the rot cannot be reversed.  Even if everyone involved intellectually acknowledges it, it has a momentum of its own.  It is part of a cycle.  Just as David Cunliffe could not prevent what happened to him, John Key cannot prevent what is to happen to him.

There will be an end to it – be it in months or years.  We all know it can’t last.   But we need to look beyond it, and worry about succession planning.   Labour have been a brilliant example where Helen Clark left such a vacuum that Labour have still not recovered from it nearly a decade later.

The perversity of it is that National can institutionally know what to do, but it won’t actually do it.  It’s like a boat taking on water, and buckets being handy, but everyone is much more concerned about where to sit as the boat is sinking.

Even if the absurd were to happen – that there would be a 50% rejuvenation of cabinet (just for the sake of argument), they would still have to continue with the burden of the party’s history for the last seven years.  It doesn’t matter that new people are now “in charge”.  It won’t change the voters opinion about how Northland, CERA, Christchuch, Pike River, school closures or many other issues were handled.   These are all “National”, not a specific minister or two.

And so, the next two years will be interesting as more of the back stabbing and jockeying for position will start coming to the surface.  Leaks to the media about National related problems are already increasing, and more will come from within the party.  The white anting will become more blatant, and before you know it, we’ll be at the next election, and not enough people left of centre can hold their nose to tick Blue.

All that Labour and the Greens have to do now is to be quiet.  Stop trying to make policy.  Stop going on crusades.  Just appear calm, capable, consistent and non-threatening.

The rest will take care of itself.


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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

To read Cam’s previous articles click on his name in blue.

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