There’s a grim irony to Bill English’s career. Despite being regarded as competent and having a Cullen-like role as the heavy-lifter in this government, he has also been at the centre of the worst National screw-ups of the last decade.
As Minister of Revenue, he was heavily involved in the sale of Wellington Airport, which drove the final nail into the coffin of the last National Government. He was forced into the leadership as National faced certain defeat in 2002 and delivered a stunner as National’s base deserted him – visually symbolised by an old mate of his beating the crap out of him (but being careful not to knock him out) in the Fight for Life. In 2008, he single-handedly cost National 5% in the polls and forced it into promises that still constrain it in government when he drunkenly let slip the secret agenda to a tape recorder wielding stranger at a cocktail evening.
Now, his unrepentant, arrogant behaviour over his housing rort has made him a liability to Key. The question is: who could replace him?
Not Nick Smith, remember last time they made him deputy? Nick doesn’t. Appointing Brownlee would be so laughable they might as well make him Minister of Maori Affairs as well. Most of the rest are too inexperienced, too mad, too dumb, too lazy, or a combination of the four.
I reckon there are two choices. Steven Joyce and Simon Power.
Joyce is tight with Key and they’re ideologically similar. He would be big business’s choice. But he’s actually been a bit of a failure as a minister, particularly with regard to the flagship broadband programme. As the Telecommunications Review notes: “He’s got a 10-year time-frame and he’s already behind schedule”. Key needs someone capable of holding his hand and handling the complex business of governing while he’s off clowning around. Joyce isn’t that man. Caucus may not want to give Key his best buddy as his deputy; they would prefer a counter-weight instead.
Power is from the ‘moderate’ faction in National, a depressingly small faction these days. Don’t get me wrong, moderate’s a relative term. Power is fiercely pro-US – it was his comments that a National government would follow the United States into war ‘”wherever, whenever” that killed off his leadership hopes. But he stands in contrast to other ministers in that he doesn’t see every issue as a chance to pay off big business. As Associate Finance Minister, he is placed to step into English’s shoes in that role. He has the brains and ability to be the heavy-lifter to Key’s light-weight.
Bill can stay in the background, helping out the Tolleys, Bennetts, and the other ministers who need to take off their socks to count to 17. But it’s getting harder by the day to see how he can stay on as Deputy PM.