Bill English's greatest legacy is his reputation.

It has been 27 years in the making but like other southern products, good things take time.

Respect is what he acquired by the truckload since entering politics in 1990 but more so in the past nine years.

He is without peer in the National Party in terms of the breadth of experience from ministerial roles and leadership roles.

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The fact that Rob Muldoon was among his colleagues when he first entered Parliament illustrates the length of his career span.

But it is depth of character, not the length of his CV, that has earned him respect across the Parliament and across the political divide.

Until John Key's decision to hand him the keys to ninth floor 15 months ago, most people had not seen it in action. They simply saw him as an excellent steward of the Government's purse.

But his time as Prime Minister, and particularly the full-on scrutiny of the election campaign meant the wider electorate was exposed to the man's humanity and intelligence.

They saw his commitment to address social deprivation and his development of the social investment approach to do so.

National has never had such an authentic champion in that area, long regarded by Labour as its patch.

The election result suggests they liked what they saw by returning National MPs in droves.

English built his political legacy by recovering from abysmal defeat in 2002. He may not go out a winner because he could not win over New Zealand First to form Government.

But he leaves with a reputation that has grown better with age.