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Can New Zealand’s new prime minister Bill English get used to playing the lead?

Bill English has been endorsed by his colleagues to become New Zealand’s next prime minister. Reuters

Can New Zealand’s new prime minister Bill English get used to playing the lead?

Bill English has been endorsed by his colleagues to become New Zealand’s next prime minister. Reuters

John Key surprised everyone when he announced his resignation as New Zealand’s prime minister, which came despite his government doing very well in opinion polls. In the same speech last Monday he endorsed his deputy, Finance Minister Bill English, as his successor.

By last Thursday, it became clear English had the numbers in caucus to win the vote hands-down. The National Party caucus duly endorsed English unopposed on Monday, with Paula Bennett to serve as his deputy. Steven Joyce, who has served as minister of economic development, will take up the finance portfolio vacated by English.

So, who is Bill English?

English’s background

English has served as deputy prime minister and finance minister since National won government in November 2008, shortly after the global financial crisis and in the midst of recession.

He inherited from the preceding Labour government relatively low public debt, so was able to borrow and spend to support the economy and avoid radical cuts and austerity policies.

Presently, he can boast a return to fiscal surpluses, although these are dented by the costs of rebuilding after the recent Kaikoura earthquakes.

English is a conservative Catholic who is opposed to abortion. He voted against the marriage equality bill in 2013; Key voted for it.

What for the next election?

So, after eight years playing second fiddle to Key, how will English get used to playing the lead? In particular, what are the prospects now for National in a general election due by late 2017? There are two warning signs.

First, English led National in 2002 into its worst election defeat ever against Labour and Helen Clark. National received an embarrassingly low 20.93% of the overall vote, and English was later replaced as party leader.

Nonetheless, as a true career politician, English stayed the course and continued to serve his party well, and was eventually rewarded with the finance portfolio under Key. But it remains to be seen how well he has put the lessons of 2002 behind him, and whether he’ll do better the second time around at leading National into a general election.

The second warning sign arises from Key’s level of personal popularity.

Many Kiwis took it as an article of faith that Key, a self-made man of independent wealth, would somehow make the rest of them wealthy too. Booming house prices may have boosted that belief, at least for those lucky enough to own their own home.

But even if that mojo didn’t always work well, many Kiwis liked Key all the same. What’s more, they were not very impressed with the opposition – in 2014, 47% voted National (compared to Labour’s vote of 25%).

Having won three straight elections, Key is a hard act for anyone to follow as leader. His enduring popularity with middle-class Kiwis, although apparently past it peak, is unprecedented in recent years – so much so that he looked set to match the longevity of former National leader Keith Holyoake, who served as prime minister between 1960 and 1972.

Under Key, National’s opinion poll ratings defied gravity, remaining high at around 48%. But we have yet to see how much of that relied purely on Key’s personal popularity. Will English suffer in comparison? Will National’s support decline, and, if so, by how much? And will English turn out to be a choker – again – on election day?

A few National MPs in marginal electorates and/or low on the party list may be feeling nervous now about their electoral prospects.

What for policy change?

One thing we do know is English was “architect” of many of the Key government’s policies. As such, he promises policy continuity and no “U-turns”, at least until the election.

Capital expenditure will precede any tax cuts.

Frequently cited as one of English’s big achievements is the social investment model that applies predictive modelling and cost-benefit analysis to create evidence-based solutions for targeted and improved social services. One has yet to be convinced that big data will be a panacea for the most intractable social problems, even though English speaks positively of the results so far.

Laudable though the aims may be, this all reveals English’s strengths as a policy technocrat – but not necessarily as an inspiring leader who could connect well with his domestic audience and earn praise from international peers.

Key came across as an ordinary relaxed Kiwi bloke, forging friendly ties with Malcolm Turnbull and Barack Obama. That kind of political capital is hard to build and easy to squander. Key’s endorsement of English does not mean it all gets passed onto him.

English has less than a year to the next general election to solidify his leadership with his cabinet and, more importantly, in the eyes of the New Zealand public.