PM says Key weakest link

By Stephen Cook

Prime Minister Helen Clark says Don Brash had presence and authority. She also speaks warmly of former National leaders Bill English ("never take him lightly, he's a clever man"), Jenny Shipley and Jim Bolger.

When it comes to John Key, Clark stops short of Winston Churchill's famous quote on Britain's first Labour Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald: "He has more than any other man the gift of compressing the largest number of words into the smallest amount of thought."

She also deliberately avoids the word lightweight, but it is clear she is taking cold, calculated aim at the man who leads her in the polls and the empty spaces she thinks she can see in his leadership profile.

"He is very thin-skinned. In the end he will hang himself because he isn't good on his feet, he is a very carefully scripted and managed candidate," she told the Herald on Sunday.

IT'S A little over three months to the general election and it's clear Clark sees Key as the biggest chink in National's armour.

Languishing in the polls and facing the toughest test of her nine years in charge, the Labour leader was out on the hustings yesterday drumming up support and promising to bounce back from the dark shadow cast this week by rising petrol prices and road user charges.

The gloomy headlines and general pessimism were of little concern at this early stage in the campaign, she claimed, and the least of her worries was Key.

"There's this guy who has been in Parliament for a second term. He has no background in public life. He's spent years out of New Zealand. Heaven knows what he did. He made an awful lot of money, but he's a bit of an unknown quantity and that is what the Kiwi electorate will focus on - a bit of an unknown quantity."

So how did he rate alongside National leaders of the past?

"In terms of all the others I've dealt with, there is no doubt in my mind he would be the least prepared for what he would like to do," Clark said.

Former Prime Minister and National Party leader Jim Bolger was easy-going and someone people could relate to while Jenny Shipley had a "very considerable presence".

Bill English may be remembered for achieving "a spectacularly bad result" for National at the 2002 general election, but nevertheless could never be taken lightly because he was a "clever man".

And while Don Brash may have been this "figure of fun" he was still someone who had "presence and authority".

Key, on the other hand, was someone who didn't stand up well to pressure.

"It's one thing to think of you as a nice person - the other question is whether you can do the job and represent our country in a crisis. Would you buckle under pressure? What do you really stand for? What drives you?

"He hasn't been tested but when he is put under scrutiny he is very thin-skinned."

THE NATIONAL leader decided on a more diplomatic approach yesterday, saying that he and Clark were obviously "very different people".

"I do not have decades of political experience, but I do bring to the table a wide range of international and domestic experience and an understanding of the real issues facing New Zealand.

"I am also not bound up by the issues that dominated New Zealand in the 1970s and 1980s."

Clark did, however, concede that Labour would be heading into the election as genuine underdogs. Nevertheless, not once had she entertained the idea the party could lose the election.

"Three years ago we were behind and we just had to put on our hard hats and work in a very determined way which is what we are doing now. There is a winter to get through. The country is being buffeted by a lot of offshore wind but we have to provide leadership to get through it," she said.

"I am always focused on the date [of the election] whenever it is and doing our very best.

"Three years ago we were behind, it was tough. But every morning the sun is going to come up and you have to get out there and be totally positive.

"Last campaign we were polled to death. Every poll told us we were behind, but I knew it didn't feel like that. At the moment, on the street, it is pretty good.

"People are the same as they were in 1999, 2002 and 2005 so I am going to get out there and campaign to win because I believe it is possible."

The fickle nature of polling meant that "one stumble" could determine an election.

"And you won't find too many stumbles by me on the campaign trail," Clark said.

She said National would run a hermetically sealed campaign that was carefully managed and controlled by the likes of Australian spin doctors, Crosby Textor, whereas Labour would get out there and take risks.

Key is refusing to confirm whether he is using the controversial strategists in his bid to become New Zealand's next Prime Minister.

The Australian company, which is believed to be helping with National's campaign, has masterminded many campaigns for Australia's John Howard, advised the British Conservative Party and helped Boris Johnson win the London mayoralty.

Said Clark: "Who cares if they use Crosby Textor? The point is that they were not honest about it. When they send their staff around the press gallery and say, off the record, we use them but, on the record, we are not commenting; I ask what is this?

"You have got to laugh," added Clark, referring to the irony over the use of the firm and Key's pronouncements of being a self-made man.

Key yesterday declined to comment on the Crosby Textor issue.

Putting Key aside, Clark yesterday couldn't hide her irritation at the protesting truckies taking the gloss away from what should have been a week of celebration over the Government announcement on Tuesday to re-nationalise the country's railways and ferry services.

She said, for years ordinary motorists had been paying a disproportionate amount for the roads when heavy transport was taking the heaviest toll on them.

"If you look at it objectively it would be hard to say that [what they are being asked to pay] is unreasonable."

- Herald on Sunday

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