John Key's valedictory speech next week after 15 years in politics and eight years as Prime Minister will be one of the most keenly anticipated ever.

There is still a lot about his departure that feels unexplained and contrary to the natural laws of politics.

He might have been known as the smiling assassin in business and his reputation suggested he was ruthless.

Yet he will never be the politician who fought to the bitter end.


Helen Clark stayed in bed for a week after losing to John Key in 2008 and she fought to the bitter end to become UN Secretary-General and you'd expect nothing less from a conviction politician.

The first time I encountered John Key was in 2001 when I was covering a northern regional conference of the National Party at Waipuna.

Every regional conference was worth attending in those days because the party was in the midst of a civil war with Michelle Boag challenging Auckland businessman John Slater as party president.

I'd like to say it was obvious he was going to have a meteoric rise and become one of the most successful New Zealand politicians of the modern age. But it wasn't.

Jenny Shipley introduced Key as the hotshot Kiwi making it abroad who was home to be guest speaker.

Key talked energetically and easily about the dynamism of the Irish economy - which was still some years away from collapse - and how New Zealand could emulate it.

He had clearly been plotting, however. He returned to New Zealand from London to oust sitting MP Brian Neeson in a closely fought selection battle - Key won by 32 votes to 28.

Just two people switching votes in that selection would have denied Key his run in 2002 and all that followed.

Key became the consummate retail politician. Even if what he said didn't have a great deal to say, he knew how to say in a way that made people feel good.

English leans the other way, plenty of conviction, but not so great on the retail unless you've got half an hour to spare.

For all the back-slapping in National about a seamless transition to English, Key's energy and easy nature has been missed.

So too has his style of politics - often more a commentator than a player - which disarmed his opposition.

His temporary re-entry into the limelight for a week of final farewells will be a reminder of how different they are and what is missing from English's repertoire.

Perhaps there is an expectation in National that the respect in which English is held by those who follow politics closely will naturally be replicated to voters once they are exposed to his intelligence over time.

Earlier, there was so much to be distracted by - the leadership vote, the Cabinet reshuffle, the first overseas trip, the first state of the nation speech, the first Waitangi Day boycott, the first meeting with the Australian Prime Minister.

English was fizzing at every first thing he encountered as a new leader. As my colleague Claire Trevett noted on his first overseas trip, to Europe in January, he could not stop grinning.

That was probably the closest English is going to come to the John Key experience, of being naturally and relentlessly positive.

But the novelty is wearing off and English is starting to revert to his default position, of being relentlessly measured and considered.

The more he relaxes into the role, the more he edges towards dreary.

And if he becomes dreary, he will appear to be unresponsive to issues bubbling away, such as water quality, the sale of water, house prices and immigration.

Just as some fitness freaks need a personal manager at the gym, maybe one of Bill English's staff needs to sit on his shoulder with a cattle prod to steer him away from political drift.

The Press Gallery will have to start taking alarm clocks into post Cabinet press conferences to wake them up when it is over.

National has been so pleased with its "seamless leadership transition" that it appears not to have noticed how much sharper Labour and the Greens have become and what a boost they are getting from their natural allies outside Parliament such as Forest and Bird and Greenpeace.

The Opposition regularly calls for Environment Minister Nick Smith to be sacked but would be devastated if he actually was because his handling of water and housing is helping them no end.

The water issue is gathering a head of steam and the political management seems to be absent.

Two things Key was exceptional at was recognising when voters were getting uneasy about issues and communicating with them.

It is where English appears to have a deficit. He and Steven Joyce have been experienced political managers but more so internally.

Joyce is now Finance Minister and chairman of National's election campaign. English is having to come to grips with the most demanding job in the country.

Is anyone in the party looking out for political danger?

The release of the swimmable rivers policy backfired because specialist journalists who should have been briefed beforehand on a highly technical measure were not and opponents set the agenda.

The petition this week about the sale of bottled water has raised some difficult issues about pricing and what is fair but seemed to be simply dismissed.

The demonisation of the agriculture sector by environmentalists demands some close attention in Government.

Key would have had a plan by now.

Bill English can't spend his whole time asking himself what John Key would do but it would pay to do so occasionally.