Key Points:

The rise of John Key and Kevin Rudd are eerily alike - even, now, to owning up to an out-of-character strip joint jaunt.

Shock, horror. The traders in the Alex cartoon, chronicle of life in Key's London financial markets, seem to do half their business in lap-dancing bars.

Perhaps Key and Rudd are short of red corpuscles. Sir Robert Muldoon, a man with bags of the said corpuscles until drink got the better of them, paid visits to famous establishments in Paris (one of them with a present-day MP in tow). Muldoon had affairs, too.

Key seems fixedly married and fond of his children. Worse for Labour, Key doesn't seem to have a miasmic past.

Pete Hodgson's bottle bomb last week bounced off. Everyone I have met who worked with Key speaks well of him, which in a way is a bit alarming.

Of course, if you spread around $40 million some of it is likely to end up in sticky places. Maybe a real shock-horror lurks in a closet in his Parnell hut.

If so, it had better be soon and big for Labour because National's polling is giving it enormous leads on economic management just as the economy turns the screws on voters.

Labour's real problem with Key is that he is less an opponent than a successor: if you are tiring of Labour, you can have something not dangerously different.

Why is this? In part the continuity flows from Clark's Government having rubbed many of the rough edges off the economic and social policies it inherited, to voters' general approval. The focus now is principally on management.

That goes even for tax policy, though there is more light between the two parties there than on most policies.

In part continuity flows also from New Zealanders' now secure sense of independence. From the 1970s onward, Clark's generation made this nation independent in the true sense - that is, as a state of mind. Key's generation is automatically independent and Key is thoroughly of that generation.

Portraying him as a would-be Bush warrior, as Labour was trying to do until the Air NZ blowback, cuts no ice.

Hence National's foreign and defence policy shift over the past couple of years. The lingering wistfulness for a return to a semblance of the old kith-and-kin "where-Washington-goes-we-go" Anzus alliance has disappeared from mainstream National thinking.

In Key's words, National is conscious of historical links "but we have moved on". That will be evident in a forthcoming discussion paper.

The paper, as Murray McCully prefigured on Saturday's Agenda TV show, will spell out an independent external policy. "Independent" is the key word because from that follows the paper's accent on multilateral principles as appropriate for a small, independent country. National had already deemed multilateralism appropriate for trade and climate change, the other great external challenges.

It adds up to "bipartisan". Key (overlooking his block on the transtasman therapeutics agency which is now starting to cost this country's medical drugs exporters to Australia) says New Zealand should be "viewed externally through one lens".

That doesn't mean slavish adherence to the Clark doctrine. A promised white paper defence "stocktake" would keep the "niche" approach but reset the spending level, probably go for a cut-down version of a balanced force and push closer inter-operability with Australian forces.

In one sense National's shift is a tribute to Clark's intelligent, canny and able conduct of foreign policy (barring a small lapse or two), which is likely to be her enduring legacy in the history books.

But National's shift is also a consequence of this nascent nation's independent state of mind. Forelock-tugging doesn't wash now.

Will National also take independence on a step? Maybe. Quietly, some National MPs are preparing a plan to ditch the monarchy on Queen Elizabeth's death.

Clark doesn't dare go there and most Nationalists are not ready for it. But if Key gets to be Prime Minister and lasts as long as Clark, he may well install our first president. That's independence.

* ColinJames@synapsis.co.nz