Leader change needed, says Key

By Julie Jacobson

He's scored a record 17-point lead over Labour in a shock new political poll - now National's charmed leader John Key is ramming home his advantage, suggesting Labour's aspiring leaders are agitating for a change.

A Herald Digipoll, taken in the week after Finance Minister Michael Cullen delivered his eighth Budget, shows 50.9 per cent of decided voters now support National, while 33.6 per cent wouldvote Labour.

Commentators say the poll will be a big blow to Helen Clark, who has come second to National's John Key as preferred leader for the second time in as many weeks, after an eight-year run at the top of the preferred PM polls. Key came in ahead of Clark on 45.5per cent (up 9.3points) with support for the Prime Minister dropping 5.6 points to 42.1 per cent.

At home in Parnell, Auckland yesterday, a beaming John Key told the Herald on Sunday he suspected preparations were already under way to find a successor to Clark, possibly Defence Minister Phil Goff or Steve Maharey, Minister of Education.

Mischief-making his suggestions may be, but political commentator Colin James said yesterday's result wasn't a knee-jerk reaction to the Budget, but continued a long-term trend in National's favour.

Labour has played bridesmaid to National in almost every political poll for many months, and had been hoping this month's Budget would give it a much-needed boost.

It should "definitely" be of concern to Clark and the party, James said. "This isn't some sort of short- term thing that the Government would like to think it is. I think there's more solidity than the Government acknowledges. It goes back a long way.

"And it's not as simple as tax cuts or the Budget - gestures don't change really long-term trends. There's deeper issues and drivers that apply and the Government has to deal with those."

Labour was in its third term and had seriously underestimated the Key challenge, he said.

"National has got its act together and looks more like a party-in-waiting to be Government than it has for a long time."

A spokesman for the Prime Minister would not comment but did say the Government had been dealing with some very difficult issues.

"We are halfway through a Parliamentary term when the electorate is not focused on [making] a choice. The Opposition leader is still in his honeymoon phase and we are getting on with governing."

Key, who took over as National leader in November, believed the poll was a reflection of an energised, younger electorate and Labour's failure to deliver. He and his deputy Bill English are both at least a decade younger than Clark.

"I just think the electorate has decided it's time for a change. Sure I accept new leaders do get a honeymoon period, but it's a bit deeper than that. It's more a rejection of the pathway Labour's leading New Zealand down."

A One News-Colmar Brunton Poll, which last month showed National as the preferred party of 46 per cent of voters ahead of Labour on 37 per cent, is due in the next fortnight.

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