If anything has marked John Key’s tenure as PM it’s his use of his personal brand to run his cabinet. While other PMs have used their popularity in this way, few have relied on it so heavily. And it’s offered him significant freedom from the deal-cutting and internal-politicking that’s more usually required for a leader to maintain control. Throughout his first term the deal in cabinet was clear – John calls the shots because John get you the votes.
If freedom from the bog of internal politics is the upside of Key’s brand-based control then the downside is how quickly that control slips away once the brand starts to lose popularity. And make no mistake, Key’s popularity is slipping. As I understand it the Nat’s internal polling has him slowly but surely tracking down since late last year. Which goes some way to explaining why he has not had the power to reign Collins in over the ACC debacle or to stop the infighting that has marked National’s second term so far.
Of course this loss of control tends to lead to more damage of Key’s brand, he looked weak on ACC from dithering over Nick Smith, he’s been damaged by Joyce’s mishandling of the convention centre deal, and now he’s had a minister release a letter that contradicts his claims around Crafer farms.
I don’t think life is going to get any easier for Key over the course of the term but there’s no alternative for the nats – it’s not like their caucus is full of appealing potential leaders. That said, John might not be that appealing either by the time 2014 rolls around. And if he doesn’t bring National popularity then just what does he offer the party that other senior MPs don’t?