English back from the cold

By Maggie Tait

He's back. Bill English has spent the past couple of years with his head down and tail up, working as hard on the education round as any NCEA student.

Now, after being chosen as the party's deputy leader and named as finance spokesman today, he is ready to play a much more active role.

Don Brash resigned as leader on Thursday - the day before lifting the injunction that had until then stymied the release of Nicky Hager's tell-all book The Hollow Men. Deputy Gerry Brownlee stood aside for Mr English once he made his desires known to avoid a messy conflict.

Hager's book shows Mr English's frustration at not having decision-making power.

In an email to Dr Brash he lashes out over promotion of MPs who hadn't earned it and weren't ready for it. He slammed a lack of proper development of policy and said government needed to be based on competence not spin.

Now he is in a position to see that vision through and is unconcerned that his criticism of colleagues in the email - Judith Collins, Murray McCully, John Carter - would have a lasting effect.

"I'm sure the book has emails which show the robust debate that goes on in any political party," Mr English said.

"I'm not at all concerned about that."

In choosing Mr English the caucus has appointed experience. Mr Key is a few months older than Mr English but the latter has years on him in terms of political know-how.

Unfortunately for Mr English that includes the experience of losing an election - 2002's defeat for National was comprehensive.

That saw the end of his leadership that had run from October 2001.

Before then he was seen as "the answer" the way Mr Key is now.

He rose through the ranks after becoming MP for Wallace in 1990 and has been MP for Clutha-Southland since.

Mr English's credentials include being chairman of the social services select committee 1990-1993; Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Crown Health Enterprises 1993; Minister of Crown Health Enterprises and Associate Minister of Education with responsibility for the early childhood sector 1996.

He was appointed Minister of Health when the National-NZ First coalition formed and in 1998 was assigned the Associate Treasurer portfolio. In 1999 he became Minister of Finance and Revenue. He was elected deputy leader in 2001 and took over from Jenny Shipley in October 2001.

His loss as leader has been variously characterised as peaking early to being the victim of an atrocious election campaign.

Others said he failed to appeal to the core party members - something that was seen as a strength for Dr Brash whose leadership saw donations and support flood in.

Mr English is seen as more centrist and a family man with understanding of middle-New Zealand.

His wife Mary is a doctor and they have six children. He was raised in a large Catholic family on a Southland farm and went to Catholic schools.

He was a farmer before going to university - he got two degrees, a Bachelor of Commerce from Otago and a first class honours degree from Victoria.

After finishing his studies he did another stint at the family farm in Dipton but returned to Wellington to work for Treasury and marry Mary.

Saunders and Unsworth's guide to the 2005 Parliament describes Mr English as intelligent, friendly, hard-working with very good people skills and says he is noted for his laconic humour.

Mr English believes in his faith and market economy - but is not extreme about the latter.

The guide said he had managed to re-establish himself as a major player in the National Party with "a quiet dignity".

Now he has done his time and has another chance to shine.

- NZPA

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