National's front bench

By John Armstrong, Compiled by John Armstrong

DON BRASH

The gentlemanly exterior hides an all-pervasive ambition coupled, when necessary, with a degree of ruthlessness.

Nevertheless, win or lose, Brash has reinvigorated National's brand as he said he would - by sharpening the communication of its more distinctive policies. He has hardened National's edge in some areas and made it difficult for Labour to match its adversary on race, tax, law and order, education and welfare.

He has neutralised Labour where it held the advantage by, for example, signing up to the Cullen super fund and postponing state asset sales.

Brash has tried to make his lack of parliamentary experience a virtue by cleverly selling himself as someone who is not a stereotypically untrustworthy politician. That image jars badly, however, whenever he sounds like one - as he did this week ducking questions on Iraq.

His one and only shot at securing the keys to Premier House may also falter on an inability to anticipate a line of questioning and adapt his responses accordingly. Has yet to get the better of Helen Clark and may also have trouble during the campaign silencing Winston Peters, who has lampooned him mercilessly.

GERRY BROWNLEE

Has gone quiet save for the occasional potshot as Maori Affairs spokesman.

Brownlee made himself a frontbench headache for Bill English, but has been the model deputy, complementing his leader by being the political bruiser Brash could never be. But he has also been careful not to overshadow Brash. He has a sharp political instinct and wields influence in determining National's tactics. He also is said to get on well with Winston Peters, which could prove invaluable.

Apart from Maori Affairs, Brownlee does not hold a major shadow portfolio. His public profile has lowered accordingly. Lingering leadership aspirations are not helped by the rapid promotion of John Key and renaissance of Bill English.

SIMON POWER

The dumped defence spokesman has put the "we go where America goes" blunder behind him as chief whip.

He has sought to make a previously undisciplined caucus more cohesive, while lifting National's game in the House. However, like Brash, Brownlee and Nick Smith, Power is another frontbencher without a major spokesmanship and consequently the means to attack Labour.

As a minister, he may get labour relations, tertiary education or energy. He is also a possible Leader of the House.

BILL ENGLISH

Having sought solace from his dumping as leader nearly two years ago by immersing himself in the shadow education portfolio, English has focused on getting National on side with parents worried about slipping standards in state schools.

He has developed clear policies to do just that and has caught Labour napping. His hounding of Government ministers over NCEA and dud tertiary courses has made him the stand-out performer for National.

However, his relations with the leadership remain uneasy. Brash needs English's Cabinet experience, intellect and policy skills.

However, English's relegation to one of the less media-friendly speaking slots at National's conference last month spoke volumes.

NICK SMITH

He has bounced back from the humiliation of being removed as deputy leader, taking stress leave and the pressures of last year's prosecution for contempt of court.

As Environment Minister, Smith would have the crucial task of rewriting the Resource Management Act. The big question is whether Brash is willing to entrust him with a heavyweight portfolio after erratic performance as his No 2.

TONY RYALL

Here is another long-serving MP close to English who might have held a grudge over Brash's coup. If so, he has quickly pushed it aside and has knuckled down as law and order spokesman.

Ryall won deserved promotion to Brash's front bench by undermining public confidence in Labour's handling of policing. He did the backroom work on Brash's law and order policy, which emphasised abolishing parole for repeat offenders, rather than resorting to the old standby of longer jail sentences. He's a dead cert for Minister of Justice, unless he wants a change.

JOHN KEY

Minister of Finance-designate. The rookie MP has rocketed on to the front bench by delivering on his huge promise. Key combines a firm grasp of the detail in the finance portfolio with an ability to communicate the big picture, while his free-market impulses are offset by an acceptance of the need to be pragmatic at times.

He's now burdened with the tag of future leader, but can handle it. Unlike Brash, he has worked hard on improving his performance in Parliament. He also understands he has to work the media.

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