Top ten Keys to success

By John Armstrong

Political correspondent John Armstrong outlines the main priorities for National's new leadership.

1 Maintain momentum through to Christmas and beyond.

John Key and Bill English talk of the "excitement" in the National caucus following their election as leader and deputy. Guaranteed huge media exposure in coming days and weeks, Key now has to excite the country. His communication skills give him cross-over appeal to voters who do not identify with National. They will listen. He needs to talk vision and values. But he also needs to float ideas which have substance. He needs to capture voters' imagination. Then he might start cutting into Helen Clark's high popularity rating.

2 Get Key to stamp his mark on Parliament.

Only six sitting days are left in the year. The Prime Minister will be overseas for three of them. National MPs know Key can and will do better than Brash against Helen Clark. Just how much better will be a big factor in caucus morale going into the Christmas break.

3 Reach out to the country's women voters.

National desperately needs to address the imbalance which has the party drawing far more support among males. The party needs to move beyond relying on tax cuts as its major branding device.

Women voters want reassurance that tax cuts do not entail pillaging Government services. Labour will anyway try to neutralise National on tax cuts by putting forward its own package. Up for review will be whether National continues to pitch its message around Don Brash's five core priorities - tax cuts, welfare reform, one law for all, law and order, and choice in education.

4 Seek an urgent rapprochement with Maori.

National must hold a dialogue with Maori if it is to retain its relevance as a modern, broad-based party. It could start by ditching the promise to abolish the Maori seats. It has little hope of gaining enough support to get rid of them. Dropping the promise would be an olive branch to the Maori Party in particular and Maoridom generally.

5 Reach out to other parties in Parliament.

National has been slow to grasp the necessity of forging ties with minor parties before elections, rather than trying to do so afterwards. Would-be National voters need to be confident the party will have partners to enable it to govern. Under Brash, the groundwork had begun to be laid with United Future and, spasmodically, with the Greens and the Maori Party. Key wants to build "durable" relationships across Parliament. But National first needs to stop declaring war on NZ First - no matter the provocation from Winston Peters.

6 Think laterally. Surprise.

The more moderate, centrist approach of Key and English means brushing up against Helen Clark in the middle of the political spectrum: the Tweedledum and Tweedledee Syndrome. It will be more difficult to make National's policies attractive to the mainstream but distinct from Labour. National needs to start outsmarting and outflanking Labour with some bold ideas that reach right into Labour's heartland - just as the Conservatives' David Cameron did with climate change in Britain. Clark got there first back here. But Key needs to be seen occupying other territory - physically and ideologically - where National leaders never normally go.

7 Respect the enemy's ability to recover.

National has had a pretty good year. But having got Labour groggy over the pledge card rort, National stood back and failed to deliver the knock-out punch. Labour grabbed back control of the political agenda. Where was the follow-up from National? Some spokespeople are delivering. Others are not. But this week's reshuffle of shadow portfolios is likely to be minimal.

8 Stop trying to win unwinnable arguments.

Confront the reality that Nicky Hager's The Hollow Men is not a work of fiction. Take the high ground. Admit some of the party's practices and procedures, especially with regard to donations and funding, need fixing. The Government is going to rewrite the law anyway. Denial will only result in Labour resurrecting the book over and over again. Key needs to make it clear the National Party of The Hollow Men is not the National Party of John Key.

9 Appoint a chief press secretary who can speak for the leader.

Someone needs to be constantly "selling" what the leader is doing and why. Brash did not have that someone. He was accessible - but also invisible. The media need to see there is a strategy. They need to know the background to contentious decisions. The role requires someone who has the confidence of the leader and who is trusted by the media. (Key last night appointed former Herald journalist Kevin Taylor as his chief press secretary, but it has taken seven years in Opposition for National to realise this role is essential to communicating effectively with voters.)

10 Nudge Don Brash into quitting politics altogether.

Cruel - but Brash's exit from politics completely would be a symbol that Key really is a break with the past. Brash says he will stay if given a substantial portfolio. But English has locked up finance. Brash is too hands-off for economic development. He is too scary to middle New Zealand to be let loose in health, education, social development, housing, accident compensation or state-owned enterprises. That leaves foreign affairs. He is not likely to get that. But the party wants him to be treated with the utmost respect. What will Key do?

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