It's a week until election day 2017. Steve Braunias has been travelling the campaign trail with the National Party leader, Prime Minister Bill English, and charting his progress through the country.

Armed with a notebook and a stethoscope, I went looking for signs of life in Bill English during three days on the campaign trail this week. It was hard work. He was vague, foggy.

The scenery was exquisite - Palmerston North, Levin, Christchurch, even Penrose has its moments - but English barely cast a shadow. Sometimes he only seemed to exist at a molecular level. He was like a terrible actor giving a wooden performance of a political leader. Who could believe him?

Without doubt he's a hell of a nice guy. Down to earth, immensely likeable. But there was nothing overt about him, nothing special. He has had a hard act to follow of course. You always knew where you were with John Key: nowhere. The moral and intellectual vacuum of Key's existence was like deep space, and New Zealand floated in it for nine no-worries years. Certainly he was a loose goose. He got the giggles, he was most at home snapping a pair of barbecue tongs, he chilled in an endless happy hour of golf and conifers and Max. Good times.

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In his place, as National's new leader, English has looked...smaller, hard to see, kind of wispy. The dark artists running National's campaign have worked hard to create an identity for him these past few weeks - family man, battler, loyal, good with numbers.

More of his character flickered into view now and then while I observed him at close quarters. He was charming, he was anxious, he was in charge, he took orders, he was sentimental and comical and foolish and boy was he hungry.

Food always animated him. Throughout the campaign, English has constantly posted social media photos of himself chowing down on this treat and that treat. I saw him in action around a plate of food; it was the fastest I ever saw him move in three days.

I recognised the way he lunged at food. It was as though he was driven by a desperate fear to get it before it disappeared. I share that exact same attitude.

Right at the end of my travels with Bill, we sat down for a brief tete a tete, and I raised the subject of food and his great keenness to snaffle it. "Well," he said, "they don't always feed you on a campaign."

It was a cry from the heart. They don't always feed you on a campaign. When they did lay on a plate, English made it plain that his philosophy was every man for himself. Why was his hunger so fraught? Was it coming from a dark place?

Prime Minister Bill English and Mary English listen to students at the Vanguard Military School. Photo / Dean Purcell
Prime Minister Bill English and Mary English listen to students at the Vanguard Military School. Photo / Dean Purcell

As follows is a journal of my search for English's character at each stop along the way, along with an all-important food rating.

Te Tihi Ruahine Alliance Whanau Ora, Palmerston North. Food rating: 8.

"And then," said a man making conversation while waiting for English to arrive at Te Tihi on the main street in Palmerston North on Monday morning, "I ended up in hospital."

And then the Prime Minister arrived. English isn't the type to walk into a room like he owns the joint. He slipped in, a modest, discreet figure, intent on business.

A dozen people sat on chairs in a circle. They included a man with excellent dreadlocks, a bald policeman, and a very young, very regal woman who was heavily pregnant.

The conversation concerned the progress of 95 Housing New Zealand families in the whanau ora programme. A chart estimated that 43 per cent of households ran out of food every week due to lack of money, and 29 per cent relied on food banks. English listened glumly.

But there were also more cheering statistics measuring a drop in criminal reoffending.

English seized on the success, and said, "The thing I want to say about whanau ora - we remember when it started. There was deep-seated concern, I have to say not for me, but for all the other political parties and commentators, that it was all going to go off the rails because it was too risky because it was about people making up their own minds instead of government agencies.

"Well, that has turned out to be wrong. There has not been some massive over-expenditure or big scandals or anything, because everyone was looking for that. I must say it was pretty tricky when it started. So now that it has that credibility, then that's a big opportunity to change people's lives, one by one."

At the back of the room there was tea and drinking chocolate, and a very large plate filled with club sandwiches, fresh fruit, fruit skewers, and ginger crunch. English was too busy posing for photos to get his hands on anything. His loss: the club sandwiches in particular were first-rate.

Bidfood, Palmerston North. Food rating: 9.

I had high hopes of a good late-morning feed from this brilliantly productive company, which distributes food to prisons and the defence force as well as big franchises such as Subway and Pita Pit.

It was even better than I imagined - and English was swift to take notice, and fill his boots. There were club sandwiches, pastries, hot mini-burgers held together with toothpicks, and a wide range of sweets. English was first to dive in and man was he fast.

General manager Andrus Lei had to work hard to get his attention. "Immigration is a major issue for us," he said, as English swiped a club sandwich. "A change of government would be a massive problem. If Labour came in and brought down immigration numbers, we've had it."

English popped a mini-burger in his mouth.

"Immigration is one of our few viable options for employment," Lei continued. "We just can't find people. We're desperate. It's not a skills shortage, it's an availability shortage."
A staff member was introduced to English, and mentioned that he commuted to Palmerston North from Paraparaumu.

English brightened. Here was one of his favourite subjects - the wonders of roading.
"How are you liking the expressway?", he said, meaning the four-lane Kapiti Expressway which opened earlier this year.
"Good."
"It works, eh!", said the Prime Minister.
"Yeah."
"Hang in there," said English, "we'll get it to Sanson before long!"

And then he eyed up the sweets. He swooped on an eclair, wolfed it one gulp, and addressed the staff.

He said, "Well, I've just been down at Te Tihi, where we're dealing with some of the tougher social problems around the town, and doing it quite differently and really effectively, and dealing with people who've had over a thousand offences between them.

"And the way you can actually change that just by going one by one. And the ability to do that is about keeping this economy moving along. Not going down the track of uncertainty and... voting for a committee that in 12 months time will tell you what's happening, whether your second home is going to be taxed or your inheritance or whatever.

"So - you know - I just want to thank you for all your hard work. Your effort and contribution and output is actually what keeps this community move along in pretty good shape.

Prime Minister Bill English visits a science laboratory at Auckland University speaking with Professor Cather Simpson of Chemical and Physics, Mary English and MP Paul Goldsmith. Photo / Dean Purcell
Prime Minister Bill English visits a science laboratory at Auckland University speaking with Professor Cather Simpson of Chemical and Physics, Mary English and MP Paul Goldsmith. Photo / Dean Purcell

"So I hope you're going to be able to support us over the next two weeks. Have a good hard think about it. Pretty clear choice. Now I have to say I've enjoyed the campaign because people are so interested in politics in a way they haven't been for a while. And to get the opportunity, one voter by voter, just to get them thinking about that choice, and building on the strength this community has and in fact New Zealand has, in a world that's a bit unstable at times and you can't assume it's going to be easy for us.

"We know how to deal with it if does [become unstable] because we've been through adversity the last six or eight years, and done very well, and that's due to the efforts of the party. We know the pressure of competition on you is a bit tough sometimes but that's what makes a more successful economy.

"I've particularly enjoyed meeting the young ones here who have been able to get jobs relatively easy because of the demand. I'm going to Horowhenua College today, and I can look those 18-year-olds in the eye and tell them they've got the best opportunity in that age group for years. People competing for them now actually, which is fantastic. They can realise their potential here in Palmerston North.

"That's why you're growing. Like a lot of provincial places that looked like they weren't going anywhere for a long time, now they're growing. It's just great and that's what we want to build on. So thank you for your time."

By the time he'd finished his speech, the rest of the food had been eaten. English glared at the empty plates, and was taken away.

Woodhaven Gardens, Levin. Food rating: 0.

The absence of food at this 1000-acre vegetable farm was baffling. There was plenty of fresh produce. They had tons of room to lay out tables and entertain their guests. Management were crazy about English: "We're just so excited to see you here, Prime Minister!," said owner John Clarke. But there wasn't a bite to eat, not even a scrap. Poor show.

English, though, was in hog heaven. Labour's water tax, he's warned throughout the campaign, will be the ruin of us all; and as soon as he arrived at Woodhaven, he was given a guided tour of a shed where workers were hosing down enormous piles of silver beet, and flooding the floor with water.

English splashed around in it, happy to get his shoes wet. All this good, free-flowing water, he said in his speech, was about to be measured for tax. It drew gasps of horror.

Woodhaven had the feel of a colonial plantation. John Clarke runs the place with his daughter Emma and son Jay. They were a handsome, fair-haired family, employing workers principally from Tonga and Kiribati.

The patriarch presented English and National MP Nathan Guy with two big Styrofoam boxes of kale, spinach, silver beet, and spring onions.

Guy said loudly, "Look what we have here, Prime Minister!"
English looked into the box and attempted a smile.
Guy laughed, "Looks like you're cooking tonight!"

English thanked Clarke for the gift but said he'd like to donate it to an old folks home.

Prime Minister Bill English chats to Olympic medalist Eliza McCartney and Vice-Chancellor Derek McCormack at the AUT Millennium Institute. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Prime Minister Bill English chats to Olympic medalist Eliza McCartney and Vice-Chancellor Derek McCormack at the AUT Millennium Institute. Photo / Jason Oxenham

I wandered around and found a kitchen to make myself a cup of tea. I drank it beside a shed where Kiribati women were hosing down clumps of spring onions. A radio was playing Bob Marley. There was a rat cleaning itself by the shed.

Horowhenua College. Food rating: 0.

Not a sausage at the college, either. Levin! What's that about? All of the Horowhenua is a beautiful and bountiful sun-kissed land, with snow on the ranges and a faint tang of the sea. But there wasn't so much as a crumb on offer at the college. It made for a long visit.

English was met at the front gates by a haka. "Thank you for your spectacular and energetic welcome," he said. And then he was led inside the school, and traipsed from one science classroom to the next, making excruciating conversation everywhere he went.
There were students making DNA models.

English asked, "You're doing this as a team?"
"Yes."
"I see. And does making a model help you understand the way it works?"
"Yes."
"That's good. Well, it's going to look great when you've finished."
"Thank you."
"Okay. Nice to meet you, kids!"

The visit ended in the school library. English looked the students in the eye and told them they had the best opportunity in their age-group for years. "People are competing for you," he said. "That's great."

The prospects of hosing down silver beet or packaging food to distribute New Zealand prisons did not appear to fill the students with excitement or hope, and the first question for English was whether National would commit itself to an inquiry into mental health. He said that results could be achieved just by helping people one by one.

Justice and Emergency Services Precinct, Christchurch. Food rating: 2.

There was tea and coffee, which is better than nothing, at the opening of the not actually completed Christchurch Justice Precinct on Tuesday morning. Outside, rain crashed down, and a cold wind blew low along Lichfield Street; inside, VIPs spoke with pride about the strength and durability of the new building. It looked like a masterpiece of brutalist architecture. It looked like a prison.

The gathering of civic worthies were told that the soil was dug out, mixed with cement, and reinstated to form a 1.2m slab foundation. "It will withstand any earthquake." If worst came to worst, it had enough drinking water and waste water to last 72 hours. But the immediate future, said justice minister Amy Adams, was about providing a base for justice and emergency staff, and opening the 19 courtrooms which would process over 200 people every day.

A table of food is laid out for media and guests during a visit to Fletcher Building head office by Prime Minister Bill English. Photo / Dean Purcell
A table of food is laid out for media and guests during a visit to Fletcher Building head office by Prime Minister Bill English. Photo / Dean Purcell

But English wished to talk of other things. He wanted to share his Manawatu vision of helping people one by one. He was having a Zen moment; he was John Lennon astride a white piano, hoping that one day we would join him and the world would live as one.

"We are not here," he said, "to serve the misery of criminal offenders. We don't want this place to be full. We want it to be empty. The government has policies that will help to empty this building!"

When he arrived that morning, and the Crown car pulled up outside, English glanced at a shipping container on the other side of the street. A word in big, psychedelic letters had been painted on it: COSMIC.

Auckland University. Food rating 0.

"We want to make small things smaller," explained a boffin as English and the invisible man of New Zealand politics - National Party MP Paul Goldsmith - roamed around a science laboratory on Wednesday morning. There wasn't anything to eat.

Vanguard College, Rosedale. Food rating: 4.

Act leader David Seymour, as the patron saint of charter schools, came along for the tour of the military school for Year 12 and 13 students. "Hello, Bill," said David. "Oh gidday David, how are you?", said Bill.

There was a jungle of weeds in the giant pot with a cabbage tree in it at the front entrance. A tour of the school went past a torn ironing board, and the principal's chair was ripped and peeling. The school gym is housed in a former carpark.

Nothing about Vanguard was posh but it had a lot of pride and spirit; it was a teenage army, primed for action.

The school performed a haka for English in the gym. "Thank you for your spectacular and energetic welcome," he said.

It was his first visit to a partnership school; he was moved by the stories he had heard about students who had failed at other schools but had come right at Vanguard.

"You're a challenge to the system," he said. "But we're here for you. Each one of you matters. We want to keep each one of you on a track...I dare the other parties who want to close you down to come here and look you in the eye and tell you they're going to take away your opportunities. I dare them!"

Chris Hipkins, Labour's education spokesman, had visited Vanguard; his attitude was described as "stand-offish".

English was at his best at the school. He sat with some of the students around a table, and said, "Tell me how you ended up here." He engaged, he listened closely, he was warm, supportive, inspiring.

He went hungry, but I was escorted into the staffroom and was told to help myself to tea or coffee and a plate of biscuits which included Cameo Cremes and Toffee Pops. Thanks, Vanguard! I salute you.

AUT Millennium Institute, Rosedale. Food rating: 0.

No food. No apparent purpose to the visit. English looked at a gym, and talked to an athlete who picked up 1-kg weights, carried them for a couple of metres, paused to kneel on one knee, and repeated the exercise by kneeling on the other knee.

English was tempted to try it out. He had a quick word with Mary English. She shook her head. Orders were orders; he's suffered from a bad back for 20 years, and he settled for doing the exercise without weights. He walked, got down on one knee, walked, got down on the other knee....It looked like he was rehearsing for the ministry of silly walks.

Fletcher Building, Penrose. Food rating: 7.

Fletcher really talked themselves up before the visit. Their comms team had seen my repeated social media postings of food photographs on the campaign trail, and emailed to brag about the spread that was in store on my last tour of duty with the Prime Minister.

I don't want to be ungrateful but it could have been better. It was very Auckland - meaningless bits of mint draped over some pastries, club sandwiches wrapped in a meaningless strip of grease-proof paper, that sort of thing. There wasn't anything hot. If I'd stayed another day and gone with English to Gisborne, I would have got a roast meal at the Eastern Institute of Technology. I saw him gobbling it on TV. Man it looked good and gee he looked hungry.

Bill English grilled by workers about minimum wage.

When we sat at Fletchers for our tete a tete, I didn't really listen to anything he was saying - politicians don't tell you anything - but I studied his face, tried to read his thoughts. He wasn't an easy man, he wasn't a chilled-out entertainer.

I asked him why he never mentioned Jacinda Ardern by name. His face fell. The corners of his mouth twitched. It was as though I'd sworn at him, or reminded him of a terrible evil.

His reply avoided mentioning Jacinda Ardern by name. I asked him whether he was shy and he ducked his head. There were sensitivities about him that politics had inevitably trampled.

He knew suffering and loss; "I got up," he famously said on TV, of his 2002 election defeat, but was the fear of hitting the canvas again ever really far away?

I asked him why he refused my challenge to play table-tennis during my series of games with other party leaders, and he said he didn't want to lose. I asked if he was he scared of losing and the mouth twitched again. He was like a man who didn't know where his next meal was coming from.