Fran O’Sullivan has laid out the business elite’s preferred successors to Bill English:
At this stage English is not mortally wounded. But his reputation as one of the Mr Cleans of New Zealand politics has been damaged.
And – more importantly for the Deputy Prime Minister’s political future – some of the more ambitious among his Cabinet colleagues no longer believe he has the right to expect long-term purchase on either the number two position nor his plum finance portfolio.
Already there is behind scenes speculation that a second-term National could see the personable Gerry Brownlee elevated to the Deputy PM’s role and business-friendly cabinet minister Steven Joyce taking on finance.
It can hardly be a coincidence that as English is on his deathbed and O’Sullivan is administering the last rites, Patrick Gower’s piece on the next page is lauding Joyce, talking up both his ideological similarity to Key (‘prgamatism’ ie ‘whatever we can get away with and nothing that will cause too big a backlash’) and his abilities as a minister.
Still, I can’t see Brownlee and Joyce replacing English as more than the dream scenario for the hard right in National. Brownlee’s time is past and Joyce is not up to taking on such a crucial role as finance. My money is still on Simon Power to take English’s place. He’s the only one to provide both the intellectual heft and commitment to the job that Key lacks and an ideological counterweight.
O’Sullivan thinks English will hang on until the next election. On principle, he ought to go now and I stand firmly on my assertion that anyone who cares about good, clean government should want this rorter of public funds gone. But, the reality is, he’s just as useful in immediate political terms, perhaps more so, if he stays on as a deadweight on National’s frontbench. Either a corrupt politician goes or English remains an albatross around Key’s neck; win-win for the Left.
It’s also apparent from O’Sullivan’s piece that the business elite that spent so much on donations and funding hard right interest groups to get Key elected is becoming increasingly frustrated with Key’s do-nothing style of government, and divisions in the Right are starting to re-emerge:
the truce Key forged with English by persuading him to jettison his own ambitions to relead National in return for the deputy leader and finance roles is no longer regarded as inviolate
the problem is that (so far) Key – whose personal poll ratings continue to mark him out as the poster boy for New Zealand politics – has not shown any real willingness to spend some of that easily earnt political capital on hard choices.
Increasingly the PM’s own obdurate stance on hot-button issues like the proposed capital gains tax and the age for entitlement to state-paid superannuation is becoming a talking point in business and bureaucratic circles. He is seen as closing off options that his Finance Minister should be exploring as a means to either produce more government revenue or ease the welfare bill.
Of course, we on the Left can be happy that Key hasn’t tried to push through some of the extreme-right policies that National’s backers favour but Key’s neglectful government is hardly benign, as the tens of thousands of newly unemployed will attest.
Both O’Sullivan and Gower have picked up on the fact that Key is losing interest in doing the serious business of being Prime Minister and that his backers seem less keen on having him stay around for an extended period:
O’Sullivan: Key is not in politics for the long haul and surely must want to leave a legacy [they’re talking about a legacy after less than a year!].
Gower: Key may leave before the 2014 election
The message from Granny Herald, mouthpiece of the Tory elite, to Key is loud and clear: ‘don’t get too comfy in the big chair, boy’. Cracks are opening very quickly in the once united face of the Right, and Labour is moving quickly to exploit them.
For the Left, this is all good news. The more the government is wracked by splits and divisions and paralysed by a lame duck Deputy and a PM more concerned with preening in front of the cameras than anything else, the less of the Right’s agenda will be progressed (especially as a more united and effective Left fights it at every turn) and the more likely victory in 2011 becomes.
For the Right, this debacle of a government should be a salutary lesson in the dangers of treating politics as nothing more than a PR exercise in getting elected and not being prepared for the hard business of governing that follows.