John Key has now been leader of the National Party for a year. But while his salesman’s smile and general novelty factor have pulled him through to date, talk around the gallery is that he’s gone off the boil a bit lately. His profile has dropped, his sensible nice guy image has taken a hit and the agenda has started to turn Labour’s way.
This isn’t good news for a man suffering the scrutiny of his first anniversary and about to head into an election year. Which might explain why the National Party website is advertising a ‘special announcement’ this morning at 10.30.
If John Key’s advisers have any sense they’ll try to use this announcement to propel Key back into the spotlight and put a dent in Labour’s poll resurgance. So what kind of announcement will it be? The need for popularity rules out any of Key’s more hard-right policies like privatisation or industrial relations – they’ll want to keep the latter especially quiet after seeing what happened to John Howard on Saturday. It’s too soon to move on tax cuts, law and order’s just been done, and all that can be said has been said on the Electoral Finance Bill (which his deputy is handling anyway).
What’s far more likely, if Key’s strategy with the ‘underclass’ speech is anything to go by, is he’ll attempt to outflank Labour in its own core constituency with a warm fuzzy message that’s short on detail but big on aspiration. This gives the advantage of softening the edges of Key’s hard right agenda while requiring no concrete action. It’ll also paint Labour as having failed the poor, undermining its key strength as the party of social justice and tying into the spin that the government is old and tired and out of ideas.
Key’s mentor David Cameron is a master of this strategy. He’s followed a similar script in the UK and it’s one that Key hasn’t been afraid to borrow from over the last year. Looking at what Cameron’s done recently, two possible themes for Key’s announcement are housing affordability for low-income families or a promise to eliminate child poverty through tax credits and welfare reform.
The housing affordability theme is something that Key mentioned in his conference speech but has gone quiet on since, and it’ll give National a chance to get the jump on Labour on what could turn out to be a major election issue. Meanwhile, the child poverty theme will dovetail nicely into his ‘underclass’ speech and give him a chance to use some more of that aspirational Cameron-style rhetoric that the media are so fond of.
Then again, I could be entirely wrong. What do you think?