Best spectator sport is jostling of future leaders.

If this weekend's National Party conference runs true to recent form - and there is no obvious reason this year's gathering of the clan will depart from that script - it will be so stage-managed that any vitality or vibrancy will have been sucked out of the affair before it has even begun.

It will make one of those heavily choreographed North Korean rallies that pay homage to the unfailing vision, wisdom and super-human feats of the latest despot to emerge from the lineage of Kim Il-Sung look like an exercise in spontaneity.

But National's power-brokers will not care one jot about that.

One of the prime functions of a ruling party's annual conference is to showcase an image as a solid and seamless governing force.


Unity - or the appearance of unity - is paramount when it comes to projecting such an impression.

Whatever may be worrying conference delegates comes a long way second.

The party's chiefs well know attending media will be on the hunt for even the tiniest hint of dissension within the ranks.

It falls on the delegates to be stooges on the conference floor, robotically providing the necessary applause as much to keep themselves awake as Cabinet minister after Cabinet minister takes the rostrum to boast about the long list of achievements they have made in their portfolios.

But party conferences are also about displaying renewal.

John Key is on record as saying parties in government must keep re-inventing themselves.

In that regard the conference agenda will see a likely focus on National projecting itself as not only the party of sound economic management, but also a party which has turned its focus to tackling deep-seated social problems in an innovative fashion.

It is another incursion by National into traditional Labour territory which has the latter party screaming warnings about a pending mass privatisation of social services. But so far to little effect in terms of the public's reaction.


Renewal is also a personnel matter.

There will be some sport for spectators to watch at the conference as the likes of Paula Bennett, Steven Joyce and Amy Adams preen themselves as they strut down politics' equivalent of fashion's catwalk even though it may be a long time before Key and Bill English walk away from their current jobs.

When National eventually has to choose a new leader, it may well turn out to be a contest where one is better off being the loser and biding one's time until the next opportunity presents itself.

That may occur relatively quickly. The life and longevity of new National Party PMs who succeed highly successful ones like Key can be summed up by borrowing philosopher Thomas Hobbes' famous phrase as being "nasty, brutish and short".

Sir John Marshall took over from Sir Keith Holyoake only to be rolled a short time after by Sir Robert Muldoon. Jim McLay succeeded Muldoon but was destroyed by the latter in an act of pure revenge.

Jenny Shipley engineered a coup against Jim Bolger and promptly lost the following election.

In this context, there are two possible eventualities.

Key may win the 2017 election and then stand down mid-way through the next parliamentary term. Alternatively Key loses that election and stands down immediately.

Those scenarios plunk the new leader straight into Opposition or staring down the barrel of it given the unlikelihood of National winning five elections in a row.

The next leader will face a difficult choice of either being a pale imitation of Key, who is the master of centrist politics, or pushing the party to the right to carve out a separate identity at the cost of votes.

The degree to which Key is head and shoulders above his colleagues in terms of political acumen was much evident this week as he sought to parry Labour's so-called dog whistle regarding the purported Chinese buy-up of the Auckland property market.

Unlike colleagues, Key spent little time questioning the veracity of Labour's analysis of the leaked sales figures.

While the rigour of that analysis might be open to question, Key would have realised its apparent confirmation of what people want to believe about Chinese buyers meant it would be a waste of time trying to mount a counter argument on that front.

Key sought to isolate Labour from its middle-class supporters by saying Andrew Little's and Phil Twyford's behaviour was markedly different from the Labour Party he had known.

Key continued on that tack, saying he did not believe those two MPs actually believed in what they were doing.

To ease public angst over the motives and levels of Chinese investment in Auckland real estate, Key had a clever-sounding line about "not many people in Guangzhou waking up in the morning" with the intention of buying a home in Auckland.

But it was actually not as clever as it sounded. Some large Australasian real estate companies have strategic alliances with their Chinese counterparts in cities like Guangzhou, which makes buying a house in Auckland relatively easy.

Key's admonishing of Labour also came too late. The horse had long bolted.

However, the Prime Minister has kept the stable door open ever so slightly to possible moves to curb demand for Auckland property.

Labour's "hit" on National is the best punch it has landed on its old rival since Shane Jones' somewhat quixotic campaign against the pricing behaviour of the Countdown supermarket chain.

Both issues dealt with matters which have a direct impact on people's day-to-day lives. The onus is on Labour to find other issues which have a similar resonance.

But at the end of the day - to borrow a cliche - governments lose elections, oppositions don't win them. Governments get worn down by the likes of this week's chaos in the Corrections Department.

Former Australian senator Graham Richardson made the point on his Sky News programme that the problem with politicians losing touch was not that they stopped talking to people. It was that they stopped listening to them.

That accusation cannot be levelled at Key - yet. The Prime Minister has made something of a study of why third-term governments do not gain a fourth term. He knows that no matter how hard National works during the current term it will inevitably find itself fighting what might be described as the "fatigue factor".

In your third term, you are always swimming into a current for change.

That the public tires of governments without necessarily good reason was one of the lessons of the Northland byelection. Admittedly voters in that electorate could turn against National without destroying the Government's majority.

But the point is they still turned.

And that extraordinary retreat from National ought to be firmly lodged in the back of every delegate's mind as they roll up to Auckland's SkyCity Convention Centre this weekend.