As we farewell an exceptionally gifted Prime Minister we are about to get a more combative one. John Key's politics have been emollient, Bill English is abrasive.

The two of them have very little in common beyond a high regard for the complementary qualities of the other. Key came to public service in mid-life fresh from the heights of international finance, English, a year younger, has spent his entire career in state employment, first in the Treasury then entering Parliament at the tender age of 28.

Key operates on fine instinct, English is intellectual. His values are Catholic, his voice and dry wit are pure rural Southland but his mind is Wellington wonk.

Which is not to say he is dull. Mike Hosking, who wonders whether English "has a pulse", is in for a pleasant surprise. English, as anybody who knows him will confirm, is stimulating company. His intellect is not just sharp, it's easily amused and very mischievous.


It has been irrepressible enough in the role of deputy leader, once he is out front on his own his humour could run wild. Many a politician's personality only comes to full public bloom, as Helen Clark's did, when they reach the top and can set the style for their team.

English might not have Key's common touch but he will probably command more respect in the liberal arts faculties of universities for what that is worth. English is at home with academics, shares their interests and engages in their debates, which Key did not. The vitriolic dislike of Key in certain educated circles - which did not relent even after his announced departure this week - arises I think from his refusal to take them as seriously as they would like.

Their resentment was probably cemented the day Key told Parliament he was getting far more angry mail about a proposed snapper bag limit than about domestic spying by the GCSB. They knew he was talking the plain truth about the country's common sense, and it hurt. English might be more interested in theoretical issues.

His leadership will be different from Key's in style but not substance. Both are moderates of the centre-right, not ideological and not about to take too many political risks.

English came into Parliament in the National landslide of 1990. His formative career experience was the next election, 1993, when the Government survived by one seat, on a recount in Waitaki, three weeks after election day. It was a near-death experience for the youthful new MP which he has never forgotten.

He has never forgiven Ruth Richardson for running such a political risk and found even Bill Birch, who took over the finance portfolio after that election, too rigidly committed to Treasury austerity. English was Health Minister in that Cabinet until Jenny Shipley gave him finance as the Government was heading to defeat.

He shudders when he recalls those years and once described to me his delight when he realised, as National was coming back to power a decade later, that it had a leader, "with the confidence to be flexible".

He remembers the GFC just weeks before the 2008 election. "Lehmans crashed the day after we launched our tax [cut] package. We had made undertakings about no changes to Working for Families, no changes to National Super, no changes to student loans - all prior to the crash. Any other politicians would have said, 'we've got the opportunity to pull it off the table'. John was clear we were going to stick to all those undertakings. This guy was not going to break the furniture."


Instead they did a fiscally neutral tax reform and ran deficits that went a lot deeper in 2011 after the earthquakes. English needed $10 billion taken out of the budget that year and Key agreed to take an asset sales programme to the election, a decision of Richardsonian courage in this reporter's view.

But Key gives English most of the credit for the fiscal control that underpinned the economic recovery and the growth of the past four years, culminating in the budget surpluses projected this week.

English masterminded a social investment strategy which involved specified goals, publicly announced, for health, education and welfare spending that would reduce dependency and save money in the long run. He regards sudden, drastic cuts as false economy and focuses on results, an approach that has brought him some praise in unexpected places.

In league with Hekia Parata, he has also led the Government's dealings with Maori. The Maori Party's Marama Fox was one of the first to endorse his succession this week. Key wanted a distinctive Maori dimension to his Government because it was the right thing to do, English probably knows it is vital.

He deserves this chance and he will be interesting.