John Armstrong: Key by a whisker from PM

David Benson-Pope should have known back in March that the fickle finger of fortune was not pointing his way when he was caught on camera in Parliament asleep, eyes closed and mouth open. Fate had decreed this was not going to be his year.

He was not alone in that regard. In judging 2005's winners and losers - and ultimately determining the politician of the year - it is easier to start with the losers.

The casualty rate was unusually high in 2005, the result perhaps of the long and fractious election campaign that effectively began as soon as MPs had returned from their summer holiday.

To the roll of losers, alongside Benson-Pope, add George Hawkins, Taito Philip Field, tax cut-plagued Michael Cullen (likely to stage a rapid recovery, however), Tim Barnett (missed out again on becoming a minister), Jim Sutton (levered out of the Cabinet), National's demoted health spokesman, Paul Hutchison, and poor man's maverick Brian Connell, whose future in politics is about as rosy as a turkey's at Christmas.

They were the lucky ones. They survived the election.

Out went John Tamihere, five largely faceless United Future MPs, five New Zealand First MPs who were equally anonymous apart from Dail Jones, plus two-thirds of the Act caucus.

Whatever you think of their politics, Parliament is the poorer for the forced departure of Jones and Act's Ken Shirley and Stephen Franks.

Although he went voluntarily, Richard Prebble, who had evolved into something of an elder statesman, also leaves a big hole.

The stepping down of two great parliamentarians in one year - Jonathan Hunt being the other - was unfortunate. To lose a third was absolute tragedy.

Few MPs develop a devotion to the institution in the way Rod Donald did. A passionate advocate of electoral reform prior to getting into the House, his boundless energy naturally switched to parliamentary reform once inside, particularly curbing the power of the Executive.

His understanding of the intricate workings of Parliament won him cross-party respect. It also gave him a better perspective on the politics of the possible - and that is what his former colleagues will sorely miss.

His death is not the sole reason the Greens are collectively this year's big losers. Helen Clark may have had no option, but the Greens were jilted by Labour.

It has left a bitter after-taste - and not just among Green voters. Labour voters also feel the Greens got a raw deal. Labour will surely pay a price in 2008 when it likely can least afford it.

But there is also a message for the Greens in their missing out on Government. They must sharpen up and present a more professional image so the likes of Peter Dunne cannot typecast them as "wacky" or "scary" and use that as reason for refusing to deal with them.

Given the rash of losers, the year's winners are correspondingly fewer.

It is tempting to cite National as the biggest, given the near-doubling of its caucus, which has inspired a quadrupling in morale.

The dynamics have shifted dramatically in Parliament, even if National is still coming to terms with the extra firepower it has in terms of questions and speaking slots.

But Labour still occupies the Government benches. Power is what matters. The year's biggest winner is the Prime Minister - by a country mile. But does that make her the politician of the year?

It is a difficult call. Helen Clark must be on the short-list, the other contenders being National's John Key and Bill English, one of whom will lead National into the next election.

In Clark's favour is her winning three elections in a row - and, more remarkably, winning the latest one with a higher percentage of the vote than when she came to power in 1999.

She has led Labour for 12 years, yet her ratings as preferred Prime Minister remain staggeringly high and are a crucial element in underpinning broad support for her party.

Yet Labour this year delivered its worst performance in Government since 1999 and, going into the final week of the election campaign, thought it had lost the "unlosable" election.

For Clark's part, there was the costly failure to get Cullen to cut taxes. There was the inexplicable inability to show some sympathy for the functionaries who copped it, so to speak, in the case of the speeding motorcade.

Her Cabinet ministers have caught the Beehive disease of trying to argue black is white when things are obviously black. The Benson-Pope affair has exposed the gulf between Clark's initial setting of new standards for ministers and the back-to-normal behaviour now that has them finding any old excuse to wriggle off the hook.

Some of Labour's discomfort is down to Bill English, who understands that for National to win the political argument it must puncture the notion that Labour is a better manager when it comes to running the Government.

In his shadow education portfolio, he has painstakingly chipped away at defacing Labour's reputation, most memorably spotlighting the NCEA scholarship debacle.

English's self-resurrection has seen his influence in the caucus correspondingly increase, with Don Brash promoting him to No 3 in the rankings.

But it is Key who has delivered the standout performance of the year. He has hardly put a foot wrong.

He is the first National MP to get the better of Cullen in Parliament. He did so at a time when Labour has had the huge budgetary benefit of a booming economy.

True, bulging Government coffers also made it easier for Key to write National's tax policy, but he delivered a package of cuts that found almost universal acclaim but which were politically watertight.

He ends the year snapping at Brash's heels in the preferred Prime Minister stakes, having hit 7 per cent in the latest One News-Colmar Brunton poll.

Key's success is in part down to obvious intellect, unrelenting drive, superb communication skills and absence of self-doubt. The competence and self-confidence make it easy to forget how far he has come in little more than three years in Parliament.

He has made it look easy. However, unlike his leader, Key understands that becoming a successful politician requires developing a whole set of new skills - such as anticipating what your opponent will do next.

He does the graft, and his consequent rapid maturing into a true political animal is why Key, in a photo-finish, just beats Clark for the title of politician of the year, with English picking up the bronze.

The year's other winners? Judith Collins jumped on to National's frontbench. Still to show real policy grunt, she has one vital ingredient National mostly still lacks - a killer instinct when it comes to hounding Labour ministers.

The other obvious winner is the Maori Party, which on early showing is going to have a huge impact on Parliament. Pita Sharples and Hone Harawira already seem so much at home they are in danger of overshadowing Tariana Turia. Labour's Maori MPs must be shuddering.

The Cabinet reshuffle saw David Parker - still in the category of David who? - fast-tracked from the backbenches into the heavyweight energy and transport portfolios.

Also deserving his promotion was Clayton Cosgrove, a Mike Moore protege who put his neck on the line for Tamihere and Hawkins - thus putting loyalty ahead of ambition.

Rodney Hide's epic victory in Epsom was almost enough to put him on the shortlist for politician of the year. But while that saved Act from oblivion, it did not save his colleagues. If anything, Act is more directionless than before Hide took over as leader.

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