The last time anybody looked up the National Party's official guiding principles, pragmatism was not listed as being one of them.

Equality of opportunity? Yes. Individual freedom? Absolutely. Personal responsibility? Of course. Pragmatism? Definitely not.

In John Key's universe, however, pragmatism is not a dirty word. It is deemed to be one of National's core values.

Or so the Prime Minister suggested in the annual John Howard Lecture which he delivered in Sydney on Thursday night.


Some might say Key was just being honest - if patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, then pragmatism is the unspoken preserve of conservative-minded politicians like him.

But Key does not bother to hide his pragmatism or try to dress it up as something more worthy. As Thursday's speech revealed, he positively rejoices in it.

Some on the left have long argued that Key's portrayal of himself as a moderate conservative is a front and that behind the friendly visage lurks a cool-blooded animal as keen to push a free market-oriented agenda as any disciple of the New Right.

But Key is into his fourth year as prime minister, so that alleged alter ego would surely have emerged long before now.

Sure, the National minority government has undergone a slight lurch to the right since last year's election, beating the drum on welfare reform, getting more hard-nosed on housing the poor, seeking to break the power of the teacher unions, slowly privatising the public service, and floating portions of state-owned companies on the stock market.

With the exception of the charter schools experiment, however, Key-led National is hardly Act in drag.

One reason Key wears his pragmatism almost as a badge of honour is that he has little choice. MMP and multi-party parliaments mean the onus is on prime ministers to be good managers rather than great reformers.

Tidy management - the missing element in National's rather chaotic first six months of this year - is paramount. As for reform, the cruel mathematics of MMP mean it can only be achieved in incremental bites if a party wants to stay in power.

The pending part-asset sales are testimony to that. Everyone knows the mixed-ownership model is nothing other than a halfway house to the power generators eventually falling completely into private hands. National's unconvincing pretence otherwise is one reason it has lost the debate over asset sales.

Such limitations on governing power under MMP were acknowledged in Key's Thursday's speech.

He argued that a series of moderate changes could still add up to a considerable programme of government activity.

The question is whether Key's preference for keeping the bulk of the public on side on most issues most of the time holds National back from doing more as the governing party.

That clearly has not been the case this year. But it has also been a very torrid six months for National. The party may have suffered only minor damage in the polls, and there is no sign that voters see Labour as a suitable and ready alternative.

But the Government and Opposition blocs are now level-pegging. The margin for error on National's part is now approaching zero.

Thursday night's speech sounded like a pitch for the centre vote, an attempt by Key to reassert National's dominance in that crucial swing voter territory.

What the speech most definitely was not was a clarion call for radical reform.

Whether it marks the end of National's post-election lurch to the right remains to be seen. But there is no question where Key feels most comfortable.

There are signs he and his colleagues are listening again; that the Government is once again focused on reading the mood of the public and responding accordingly.

The fatal mixture of bravado and arrogance which was creeping into the Beehive seems to have dissipated.

It has been replaced by a gritty realism that with no money to spend and an economy barely ticking over, the job of grinding out victory in 2014 starts now.

That is going to require that National gets itself on the right side of the argument on every issue, thus squeezing Labour to the margins.

It helps that the public is not in the mood for luxuries such as a full emissions trading scheme.

The great majority of people now want economic growth above everything else even if that has environmental effects - something highlighted by this week's Herald-DigiPoll survey, in which nearly 70 per cent of respondents supported an increase in oil, gas and mineral exploration.

Much of the change in National's frame of mind can be put down to one thing. The public backlash on increased teacher-student ratios was a much-needed wake-up call. Key seems to be in a better frame of mind. He is no longer a grump at his weekly press conference.

It is pure conjecture, but he may have accepted that while he obviously would wish to leave a reform of major proportions as the legacy of his tenure, he is not going to be remembered as that kind of prime minister.

He is more likely to be remembered as a popular prime minister who was good at managing major crises and good at winning elections. It was no accident that his speech drew on Sir Keith Holyoake as the model for what National stands for.

Whether by accident or design, however, it is another National prime minister whose phraseology Key has adapted to measure his success.

Key says the test of any prime minister is whether he or she leaves the country in better shape than when he or she inherited it.

It is a somewhat higher test than the one Sir Robert Muldoon invoked before his tenure - that he hoped to leave the country no worse off than he found it.