Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Leaders unplugged: Epsom cuppa puts bad memories in past

Despite the recorder on the table, deputy political editor Claire Trevettshares an affable cafe date with the First Couple in happier days before the Hager bombshell hit

Bronagh and John Key have a semblance of a private life but have already talked about life after politics. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Bronagh and John Key have a semblance of a private life but have already talked about life after politics. Photo / Sarah Ivey

A terrible feeling of deja vu appears to have come over Prime Minister John Key. Here we sit, over a cuppa in a cafe in the centre of the Epsom electorate. He's just realised the recorder that has been sitting right in front of him on the table for the past hour is actually on.

"God it's a recording device. Last time I went to a cafe with one of those it didn't end well."

That last time was the infamous cuppa with then Act leader John Banks, at which there was also a recorder on the table which went unnoticed. He swore off cuppas in Epsom after that, yet here he is.

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He has only himself to blame. The original suggestion was to accompany him and son Max during a golf game. I even offered to caddy. That was rejected. Instead I meet him and his wife, Bronagh, outside the gates of their home in leafy St Stephens Ave to play gooseberry on their regular weekend morning cafe date. There are enough gooseberries to make a fruit salad. There is also a photographer, a press secretary and Key's three protection squad men, known by Bronagh as "the boys".

We are meeting in what were happier times for Key, before Nicky Hager's book hit the shelves. Jonah Lomu had tweeted nice things about him the night before, the biography on him was into its sixth reprint, and Key had just had word the courts rejected Graham McCready's bid to prosecute him privately.

So on this Saturday morning Key is in a peachy mood, dressed in pastel blue. It starts raining. Key just grins at this minor annoyance and says "that's how come it's so leafy". A neighbour emerges and waves. Key calls a greeting and says of the neighbour "he's National as".

But not everyone is "National as" in this enclave. Down Bridgewater Rd Key points to a house. "They had a 'no deep sea oil drilling' sign chained to the fence. They shook it at me every time I walked past." The sign is gone. "Yes - I sent the goons over to whack it off. No, not really. They obviously saw the merit of our logic and took it down."

We go along the edge of the rose gardens and across the road to Rosie cafe. There is a fish and chip shop nearby but Key says he rarely visits. "Body's a temple. Write that down."

At Rosie they place him on the corner where he can be easily seen from outside. He's good advertising. The Keys are clearly regulars. Key asks a waitress about her upcoming wedding and advises on dates. "Go for October. Snare him early."

The menu is a bit radical for Key. It has things like 'green eggs' on it. Key orders the same thing every time: scrambled eggs on five-grain toast. "Body's a temple."

Key still does his physical training drills, assisted by the boys, at 5.40 several mornings a week. He's doing a bit of boxing, flailing at a punching bag. He won't say who he imagines when he's punching it. He's taken a vow of abstinence from booze until the election, he has trim milk in his coffees, and Diet Coke.

Their lives have been thoroughly picked over in the six years Key has been Prime Minister. Bronagh has had to get used to copping some of the flak her husband attracts. People often recognise her, and if Key is at the centre of some controversy, some confront her.

"It's easier now because the kids are more immune to it, because they're older and can understand it a bit more," Bronagh says. "But it used to be much harder when they were little and trying to explain to them why people were saying stuff about Dad. That was always quite difficult."

They're friends. It doesn't mean they're trustworthy.
John Key

They have a semblance of a private life. Every year they escape with a few friends for a weekend, no children allowed. Key won't reveal who they are: "They're friends. It doesn't mean they're trustworthy."

This year they went to Waiheke where Key went to the markets and was surrounded by Green Party supporters. One of the friends has green leanings and he finds that highly entertaining. "I write to her quite regularly: 'Dear Concerned of Parnell, today we've released an update to the national water standards and you may be interested in it.' I send all sorts of stuff. She loves it."

There are other critics Key is not so amused by. Among them are the "muppets who don't like you" on social media. He has a Twitter account but doesn't tweet himself. "Hell no. It's dangerous. Dangerous for politicians. Politics is a confidence thing, so why do you want to spend your life with people whose sole purpose is to try and get inside your head? People just hide away behind the veil of secrecy."

Key wouldn't be able to constrain himself to 140 characters anyway. He is a prolific talker. He talks about the political suicide that would come with tinkering with big-ticket policies such as interest-free student loans or Working for Families - the two big rats he swallowed in 2008 to boost National's election chances.

He talks about a new candidate who has impressed him, the evils of smoking, the merits of weight loss, golf. At one point, slightly tongue in cheek, he randomly starts talking about National Standards to divert attention from the story Bronagh is telling about him. After I chide him for talking over Bronagh, Key insists he can be quiet - he was quiet for at least 10 minutes that very morning, watching golf on television.

But Bronagh can get her own back. After Key insists his body is a temple for the fifth time, she says "more like a warehouse". He laughs and says, "There's a reason she's restricted to 600 words a day."

She also reveals what is possibly the real reason the Max versus Key snr golf game idea was rejected. "Max can whip him. The beautiful thing is Max doesn't really practise." Key is highly competitive and doesn't like to lose. In an attempt to regain ascendancy, he has a putting lesson lined up for the next day.

Bronagh still hasn't forgiven me for making them kiss for the cameras in front of the Taj Mahal in India in 2011. "That was so embarrassing. I had the 'fro going on. My hair was getting bigger and bigger." Key chimes in "it was the Jackson Six".

The visit to the Queen's residence at Balmoral makes Bronagh's list of highlights from the past six years, but the things she remembers most starkly are domestic. She lists the Pike River memorial service, and the visit to Christchurch soon after the February earthquake. Both grew up in Christchurch.

"I remember standing in Cathedral Square, just looking. It made me cry. It just felt really ... it was the icon and so standing there in front of it was kind of sad, it sort of summed up how wrecked the place was."

It turns out Bronagh also has quite the sense of humour. She mimics a teacher they had at school dubbed "Screaming Skull".

The mimic emerges again when talking about Key's handyman abilities. Key's mother warned her he was useless at DIY. She puts on the late Ruth Key's Austrian accent: "John is USELESS at fixing things round the house," she says. "He's going to have to do a good job because he's going to have to pay someone else to do everything."

The Rich List had come out the day before and by its reckoning he can still afford to be a bit useless. It put his worth at about $55 million - up from $50 million the year before. I suggest the NBR doesn't think those in charge of Key's blind trust are much chop if they only gave him a 10 per cent return. His theory is that NBR simply puts him up every year to make sure he doesn't drop off the bottom altogether.

Key's assets include that house in leafy, pluvial Parnell. If the election goes against Key that house could soon be yours. The pair have already begun talking about "post politics". When that time comes, they will sell up and build elsewhere in Parnell.

Bronagh has liked the area since they first lived in Auckland in the 1980s - the trees on St Stephens Ave reminded her of Christchurch. Daughter Steffi is in France and shows no sign of returning. Student Max will move out of home at some point to follow his father's footsteps into investment banking. They want something a bit smaller than the 929sq m home, "a lock and leave" that will let them migrate between Maui, Omaha and Auckland at will.

The meals are eaten and Key turns to Bronagh. "Do you want to share a trim cappuccino with me?" I can't quite hold back a snort of laughter. Bronagh eyes him: "No, I'll have my own latte please."

Key: "Not a big one though?" Bronagh: "Yes, I'll have a big one." Key: "That's a lot for you." Bronagh: "Its all right, I'll cope."

Key: "I'll have a small one please. Because I know my limit." When I ask Key later who gets which half of the cappuccino, he replies, "I won't answer that on the basis your headline will be 'Key likes a bit of fluff'."

In the cafe, nobody has bothered us, but as we leave Key is stopped by a woman and then a group of schoolgirls looking for selfies. He happily obliges, no doubt hoping some of those muppets on social media will eventually be enraged by them.

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- NZ Herald

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