John Key’s failure to ask a parliamentary question last week exposes a crisis of confidence in National’s ranks. It is unprecedented for an Opposition leader to be in attendance in the House for a full sitting week, and to not once challenge the Government.
This never happened when Helen Clark led Labour in Opposition from 1993-99. If she was at Parliament for question time, she took the lead question on the issue of the day – even if it meant purloining it from a colleague. Clark knew, and her colleagues accepted – if sometimes begrudgingly – that as shadow Prime Minister she had to lead the charge on the headline issues. It is an essential part of how an Opposition leader demonstrates that she/he has the wherewithal for the top job.
As Jasper wrote on Friday, a party’s performance in the House is an indicator of its mood, and right now, by sheltering Key, National is betraying its anxiety. Even National cheerleader Matthew Hooton conceded as much in his Sunday Star Times column yesterday. John Armstrong, writing in the Herald on Saturday, said Key’s deliberate non-engagement strategy, coupled with a barrage of policy initiatives from the government, was making National vulnerable and causing it to lose control of the agenda.
National and Key are playing a dangerous game. The party stands for nothing. It has offloaded unelectable policies that were once articles of faith, like welcoming the nuclear ships. Now they are screening Key from the day-to-day skirmishes in which an Opposition leader is supposed to show his/her mettle. Its election year strategy and “manifesto” have been wrapped into a single line: Let’s rely on a mood for change.