The Todd Barclay affair has tarnished Bill English's image.

Unlike his predecessor Sir John Key, he is not a practised dissembler.

After Newsroom's investigation broke, English seemed to be wrestling with two competing imperatives: his own natural instinct to tell the truth, and his political impulse to try and shut down the scandal, in the hope it would go away.

The truth finally won out. But the personal damage to the English brand was already done.


Amid all the sturm und drang of the unfolding execution of Parliament's youngest MP, English remained focused on the job at hand, speaking at events ranging from Federated Farmers' conference to Kea's World Class New Zealand awards.

He was the keynote speaker at those awards, which honoured Kiwis ranging from film-maker Sir Peter Jackson to Lady Pippa Blake, and hip-hop sensation Parris Goebel.

With understated insouciance, English stated his belief that New Zealand is up to the challenge of not just creating world class New Zealanders, but also sustaining the country that produces them. "I believe we can invest and support the kind of success we are seeing now so that more Kiwis will find this the most interesting place on earth that they want to be."

This played to the audience's sensibilities.

But inevitably, while National tried to cauterise the political fallout by securing Barclay's resignation, just as inevitably, when it came to Thursday evening's celebrations, guests were looking sideways at the Prime Minister to see if he was displaying any chinks in his political armour.

English used charming Southern self-deprecation to defuse that, saying wife Mary could "tell you that our 27 years of politics have been a picture of unrelenting success. Endless achievement and also most total relaxation".

Indeed. So endlessly relaxed was the Prime Minister that he stayed on for the post-event cocktails session, working the room late into the night in an open display of calm confidence.

What was also apparent is that English clearly embraces the strategy to focus on increased net immigration to fuel New Zealand's economic growth. As he put it, after 35 years of reforming New Zealand, "we are achieving some of the things we always wanted to".


"Yes, it creates pressures - and for those who worry about the traffic in Auckland, the biggest single number of extra people on those roads are Kiwis who have stayed home.

"In the last five years, 150,000 of them who would otherwise have left these shores.

"So, we are becoming a country good enough for our own people."

It is unclear how much rope voters will give English to bed in this radical shift before deciding it is time to change the Government, to one which will focus on mopping up its predecessor's collateral damage.

As former British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg noted yesterday: "Mainstream politicians of all stripes are failing to deliver on the bread and butter issues that matter to voters. The housing problem in particular has been festering for years, with social housing in decline, too little affordable housing, skyrocketing rents, and an over-reliance on a dysfunctional private sector that has not built enough homes, and not enough good-quality homes."

Obviously, Clegg was speaking about Britain. But he could just as easily have been describing New Zealand.

Has English's image been fatally dented?

In my view, his clumsy dissembling was not of sufficient magnitude to wreak permanent damage. But it raises a question mark over him.

The Prime Minister prides himself on being a tidy politician.

During the Dirty Politics saga at the 2014 election, English decried the involvement of Key staffers in the affair. His own pedestal is now considerably shorter.

At the National Party conference this weekend, his handling of the Barclay affair and his failure (with Key) to get a permanent and enduring solution will be talked about in the back rooms.

The National Party is clearly divided and his task is to come out of the conference with a full-on display of party unity.

If National believes that increased population growth is the key to NZ's economic transformation, they will back their Prime Minister.

But he has a hard sales job ahead.