Prime Minister Bill English says the cross-party delegation to the islands was a success for all parties. Once home, the election will be front of mind for all. Photo: Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy takes the chance aboard the Air Force Boeing 757 ferrying the Prime Minister home from this week’s Pacific Mission to ask him to pitch forward to the election and beyond

Bill English is both confident and paranoid about the general election – but says if he wins he would fight again to win National a fifth term in 2020.

With his party riding high in the polls three months out – and its new leader getting more comfortable in the role – how does it guard against the big enemy of complacency?

Its former leader John Key declared that a priority to avoid for this third term.

English says his team is confident but “a little bit paranoid about the need to get people out to vote” to secure re-election. It is an interesting word to use, raising fears of failure from a position of strength.

What could upend the chess board in the next three months to skew National’s position?

He answers without hesitation: “Look anything could crop up, I mean if you look back on the Kim Dotcom big reveal circus from the last election, well if that is possible, anything is possible.

“But I think through a campaign you need to have faith in the public. The public are quite capable of working out which bits of all the fireworks and circus are relevant to them and which bits aren’t.

“I think the key to our campaigns in the past is an ability to stick to the issues that matter and trust the public not be driven by the critics or by today’s big story.”

The election year’s big political play, the Budget, has polled well for National – the party lifting to 49 percent support in the 1-News Colmar Brunton survey and to 47 percent in this week’s Newshub poll.  Its ‘family package’ of changed tax, accommodation and Working for Families support seems to have neutered some of the threat of polling drift in the wake of Key’s departure. English’s personal result as preferred Prime Minister edged up by 1.2 to 26.2 percent – still far from Key’s heights but ahead of Little on 7 percent.

National’s provided its tactical answers on housing affordability, inequality and (unconvincingly) health and the sample of potential voters has not run a mile. In fact the Newshub poll has support for the Budget at 67 per cent to 26.

National Party insiders are all caution on the overall poll results, some citing the Theresa May effect in which the UK Prime Minister blew an enormous lead in public opinion and the science of the surveys was once again brought into question.

On those poll results, English says: “There’s a reasonable level of support because the country’s in pretty good shape and the government has consistently delivered practical progress for people – their public services, their businesses, their household incomes.

“But they bank all that pretty quickly and the test this election is about the programme looking forward over the next four or five years and we will be approaching that in a very positive and energetic way.”

Do governments lose when the economy is as good as he claims it is?

“Oh they can do, particularly in our system because the margins of winning are so small.

“We had to work pretty hard to get a majority for some legislation. Some we haven’t been able to get a majority for in the House. It is only one or two seats involved.

“I think we approach the election as confident but a bit paranoid about the need to get people to understand that they have to get out and vote if they want to continue the direction – and putting a positive case.”

Asked if he would lead for a full fourth term and contest that 2020 poll, English ignores the conceit of the question but is unequivocal.

“Oh yes I would. There is an awful lot to do and if we win I think it would be an indication, you know, a mandate from the public to push further on the issues that are affecting them.”

“If you look back on the Kim Dotcom big reveal circus from the last election, if that is possible, anything is possible.”

The odds are that he will need the Māori Party to secure a second seat, at least, and Peter Dunne and David Seymour both to keep their single seat parties in the game. 

English took Winston Peters (and Dunne) on his tour of the Cook Islands, Niue and Tonga. 

If he can’t get the same kind of coalition and support arrangements as now, for English to hold power would require Peters or at least working with him issue by issue.

The pair circled each other relatively convivially this week, with Peters typically standing aside at events and declining to be part of any official group-think. There was no chance of a happy photo op between the two.

Yet English gave Peters face on more than one occasion, acknowledging him at the Cooks’ House of Ariki before mentioning foreign minister Gerry Brownlee and Pacific minister Alfred Ngaro.

It seemed a shrewd if none-too-subtle play to Peters’ vanity and status.

The Prime Minister says: “We’ve had the odd chat. Look Winston Peters knows his way around the Pacific and I’ve been quite happy to acknowledge his presence in places where his status and seniority is recognised.  But I’ve actually been very proud of the whole delegation – we’ve got MPs from all parties and they’ve been sort of coherently representing NZ rather than carrying our own politics outside.”

The long climb back from rock bottom

If he can pull an election win off in 96 days, the Bill English era would really begin. Right now, as a party leader he is the owner of the worst result in National’s history – taking it to just 20.9 percent of the vote against Helen Clark’s Labour in 2002.

He was a dead man walking after that result and the toppling by Don Brash was no surprise. It did lead to one of the sadder sights in modern New Zealand politics.

After the Brash coup, English did the dead man walk out of the bottom door of the old Parliament building and onto the forecourt. In a scene of unsettling aloneness, the ex-leader encountered a random group, some of whom heckled him with a kind-of ‘loser, get off the stage’ charmlessness.

English, shoulders down and solo, turned and walked up towards Hill St and his home and family.

It was political rock-bottom.

Fast forward now, through the long climb up – entering government on a combination of Key’s appeal and a decomposing Labour administration, directing the National-led administration from one rung down and, eventually leadership redemption when Key stood aside.

The Prime Minister says he appreciates being accepted as Bill English, not John Key Mark II. Photo: Getty Images

It is a comeback which is possibly unprecedented here.  A John Howard-style rejection and return.

To some he will forever be Mr 20.9 per cent.  That figure makes the current Labour leader Andrew Little look like a polling celebrity.

But there is another view. Could it be that English is to Key what Steve Hansen is to Graham Henry?

One walks away having delivered consistent success and the country fears trading-down to the B team – only to find the replacement raises the standard and achieves a winning record surpassing what went before.

As the country came to realise, Hansen might well have been the real difference in the eight years of the Henry era. English too helped mastermind the National machine.

He laughs at the comparison.  “Look, there’s only one test of that and it’s at an election. I’ve been pleased with, you know, the level of public support for a different Prime Minister doing a different job, doing the job a bit differently but consistent in many ways with the programme under John Key. I learned a lot from working with him but the election will be the test of that. 

“Certainly I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to go about it in a way that suits me and the public have not forced expectations on me to be like John Key and I appreciate that.”

But the Hansen comparison was not laughed at by some in the business delegation who followed him around the Pacific. They were possibly surprised by the level of personal appeal and heart English showed while doing prime ministerial diplomacy that he might, earlier, not have had a taste for.

English had a goofyish grin on his face in many of the photos from the tour and looked to be revelling in it. 

“I am enjoying the job. I get to see the best of everything. I get to represent New Zealand in a way that is enjoyable where our international credibility is so good and I get to lead an energetic and challenging team who have got plenty of energy.

“The Prime Minister’s job is much more about celebrating success and interacting with a whole range of communities about their most serious issues but also their most satisfying achievements whether it is opening a new business or launching an organisation or recognising excellence – a whole lot of very positive experiences of New Zealand that you don’t get in quite the same way as a finance minister,” he says.

“On the other hand it is also the opportunity to keep a strong focus on the issues that are most challenging for the country and for our families and communities.”

“Whether that is the social challenges or getting the infrastructure built, these are big hard issues and we are a government that fronts honestly and looks for solutions.”

“You have to operate differently as a Prime Minister… certainly there is a lot of respect for the office and the person who is in there needs to earn that respect.  And I hope that’s the track I’m on.

“It does mean changing the habits of a finance minister reading enormous amounts of paper about all aspects of government in particular and focusing more broadly on the community and listening to it and adapting the government’s policies to get the solutions we are all after.”

He is somehow keeping a third-term government with big ugly problems in housing, mental health, infrastructure deficits and immigration in a healthy lead over Labour and even the Labour-Greens partnership.

“I learned a lot from working with [Key] but the election will be the test of that.”

If he pulls an election win off and sets sail for 2020, he’ll be getting in the zone of a knighthood. English isn’t going anywhere near there. “No, it would not concern me at all if there was no knighthood at the end of the rainbow.”

Or there could be failure: Are the polls too good to be true? With MMP and the narrowing that occurs in campaigns, plus doubts over the realism of polling results, it all might come tumbling down for English.

He remembers that lone walk out of Parliament.

“Yes I do.” He reckons he didn’t hear the catcalling. “I didn’t actually, someone else pointed it out.”

And he’s not sure that it was rock bottom.

“Look I haven’t really had rock bottom. I think losing – the impact of the 2002 election on our caucus was probably the toughest piece because very good people because of circumstances – some under our control, some outside our control – all lost out and the party was in pretty poor shape.  A tiny caucus, no money, but enough political DNA to get up and going again”

His political DNA has got him a long way. But, while English is primus inter pares (first among equals) now, isHHiwill the voters go for Simon William English redux?

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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