English well placed to convince colleagues he should be PM

Bill English. Photo from ODT files
Bill English. Photo from ODT files
Finance Minister Bill English has an ideal platform on Thursday to launch his campaign to become prime minister, if he is seriously contemplating his options.

John Key announced yesterday he will resign as Prime Minister by next Monday. A new prime minister is to be announced after next week's caucus.

Mr Key has long advocated renewal for his caucus and Cabinet and is taking his own advice in his resignation at least 10 months from next year's election.

Labour will take some heart from the news, as any new prime minister will have to sell the change to the voting public.

Mr English had previously indicated he was not interested in the top job. By not ruling out standing, it appears he has changed his mind.

In a speech, and at his press conference announcing his decision, Mr Key anointed Mr English as his worthy successor,

``For 10 years now, Bill and I have worked closely as a team. I have witnessed first hand his leadership style, his capacity for work, his grasp of the economy, his commitment to change and most of all his decency as a husband, as a father, a colleague and as a politician.''

On Thursday, Treasury will release the Crown accounts. Most observers expect the half-year economic and fiscal update to be strong enough not only to pay for the Kaikoura earthquake damage but also allow the Government to consider tax cuts.

There will be interest in the accompanying budget policy statement on Government plans for its projected extra revenue. Debt reduction and extra help for struggling families may be on offer.

As Finance Minister, Mr English can take his chance and talk about the strength of the economy, the careful stewardship of Crown finances and the choices the Government can now make with the extra money - all the while shutting out any attempts by caucus colleagues to campaign to become prime minister.

While Mr Key has indicated clearly he wants Mr English to take over next Monday, Mr English has a legacy to overcome.

When he replaced Jenny Shipley as National Party leader in 2001, Mr English oversaw a decline in the fortunes of the party and led it, in 2002, to its worst defeat yet.

During the election night party in Gore, Mr English learned his southern colleagues had lost their seats and the party had only just passed 20% in popularity. Although many believed Mr English could turn the party around, he was ultimately replaced by Don Brash, who was himself replaced by Mr Key.

Whether Mr English can convince his colleagues 14 years is enough to demonstrate he is a different-style politician remains to be seen. Most of those who rolled Mr English have since
left Parliament.

Mr English will discuss his options with caucus members and family, in that order, he said at a press conference yesterday. He will need to make a fast decision to stop contenders making an early run at the job.

There is no doubt Mr English is the brains behind Mr Key's flashier style of politics. Although Mr English is no front man, he does have a good set of financial credentials behind him.

As a list MP, Mr English can campaign from early next year, if political polls indicate National is losing popularity.

If Mr English takes the job, Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce is seen as a favourite as deputy, although, as campaign manager, Mr Joyce will already have enough to do.

Justice Minister Amy Adams, a South Island MP, is rated highly by both Mr Key and the National Party but is not popular with the public.

Police Minister Judith Collins has always been seen as a potential leader, even when blotting her copy book with Mr Key, her dealings with political bloggers and being party to a political scandal tied to the company for which her husband worked. She was ultimately cleared and returned to Cabinet by Mr Key.

If Mr Key had gone through past the next election, Tauranga MP and Transport Minister Simon Bridges would have been rated a good chance at securing the top role. After an indifferent start to his career as minister, Mr Bridges is now seen as someone who accomplishes a lot easily and quickly.

Anyone other than Mr English in the job will make it harder for National to win the next election. An early UMR poll indicated Mr English was the preferred successor on 21%, followed by Mr Joyce on 16%, Paula Bennett on 11% and Ms Collins on 6%.

The next opinion polls will be worth watching.


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