Pol science lecturer and commentator Jon Johansson has given a lucid and scholarly account of the inexorable decline of John Key and National’s prospects. In a speech to the NZ First conference at the weekend. Johansson told delegates that after a promising beginning, Key has started to “unevenly walk the new generation walk…”
“In fact, and despite Key’s and National’s high levels of popular support, his performance has become, in some respects, quite mediocre, with a thoroughly forgettable conference speech, presiding over and contributing to the recent series of policy gaffes, and coming up with what I describe as his ‘blerts,’ not all of which survive scrutiny. As an outside observer it seems to me that National’s old template has snapped back into place. ‘No risks’ and ‘inoculations’ on the right, and unremitting negative attacks on the left. It has also gone unnoticed that National’s overarching ‘change’ narrative that Key had begun to carefully construct through his ‘Burnside’ speech and subsequent regional conference speeches has lost all shape and focus. It also seems to me that National’s current low-risk strategy takes it down one of the few paths where it could conceivably lose what should for it be, from its current position, an unlosable election.
Second, Key is faced with presentational problems which potentially undermine any future-oriented ‘change’ narrative that would, I think, comfortably prevail at the next election. Voters might well be seriously entertaining changing from Labour but Helen Clark will counter by saying to voters… sure, but change to what? Change that sees 1990s retreads like Tony Ryall in health, Nick Smith in the environment, English in finance, and then John Key also has his Williamson’s, Lockwood’s and McCully’s as ideological talisman from the 90s. None of these individuals have public appeal so Labour will be doing its utmost to isolate and then contrast the respective front benches as a point of difference in its favour.
Thirdly, National’s eventual policy mix remains a mystery. This poses a risk for National as accusations of ‘Hidden agendas’ remains viable currency for as long as a policy vacuum exists. Secondly, the threshold for scrutiny of National’s eventual policy mix, post-‘Hollow Men,’ will be higher than in ’05. National seem to feel they successfully inoculated against the claims made in Hager’s book once they replaced Brash with Key. Their tactics certainly gave the appearance of having worked given the lack of scrutiny of the book’s claims that ensued. But, I’d suggest, the lack of integrity that is at the heart of the ‘Hollow Men’ will be an important sub-text to analyses of National’s policy and Key’s campaign performance. Trust is conceivably the issue of the campaign. All in all, National remains fragile enough, and Labour patient, skilled, and ruthless enough, to think that this next election is far from being a fait accompli.”