Friday should have been a white knuckle day for National leader Bill English.

On Thursday, the One News Colmar Brunton poll had showed Labour had overtaken National in the polls, breaking an 11-year-long bonanza for National.

On Friday, instead of seeking solace by going to a happy place - somewhere he could cocoon himself in support, English went in search of dragons.

He went to Northland.


Northland has not been a National leader's happy place since NZ First leader Winston Peters snaffled it from them in the 2015 by election.

Nor did English stick to the bits of Northland a National leader would still get a safe reception.

He went to Kaitaia - where one of the first people he saw sitting across from him was Mana leader Hone Harawira.

English began the day with a $50 million funding announcement for a redevelopment of Whangarei Boy's High School.

He arrived looking relaxed. The only sign of a change in his campaign was in his speech to the year nine and ten students gathered in the school hall.

Instead of the usual speech about what National was doing and the dangers of going for the other side would do, he delivered a personal speech - about himself and his own background. He told them he wore a suit but he had more in common with them than they might think. Between them all, his own extended family had gone through pretty much every problem they themselves might face.

There were gasps of astonishment when he told them the size of his extended family. There was applause when he reeled off his Samoan matai title.

Then came Kaitaia for the opening of the Mai Kaitaia pop-up clinic - a programme by prominent Kaitaia doctor Lance O'Sullivan which allowed doctors to diagnose minor ailments by computer rather than in person.

Kaitaia is one of the most deprived areas of the Far North and Harawira is a sworn foe of the National Party.

English rattled off a mihi - even ad libbing a wry acknowledgement to Harawira and a "kia kaha" which prompted some laughs. He stumbled on the pronunciation of 'tautoko' [support] but tried again and then again until he got it right.

It was not an altogether easy ride. Speaking to a group of teenagers on a mentoring programme, he was asked about his proposal to send serious youth offenders to boot camp in Waiouru. The man was concerned it would take people away from their families which were a critical part of trying to stop offending.

He was also asked about youth suicide by a young girl who had lost a sibling to suicide eight years ago. It is a topic that has come up at almost every event he has been at from a public meeting in Ohariu to a farmers' meeting in Waikato.

Each time English says he knows the impact of suicide and the Government is getting more support into schools to detect and help treat mental health issues, saying it was not a job that could or should be done by teachers alone.

The session over, English was presented with a necklace with a pupu harakeke [flax snail] shell on it. The girl who gave to him said it was used by Maori as an alarm system - when intruders went through the flax bushes outside the pa the snails would shriek and wake up the pa. "It's a signal, a call to action," she tells English. "Don't forget us."

By this time Peters' pupu harakeke had sounded. He had been in Hastings, but thundered out a press release: "English makes miraculous discovery - Northland exists."

He warned Northlanders to be wary of what English was peddling, pointing to the one lane bridges that became a symbol of National's botched Northland by-election.

It was too late. English had made it into Northland and out again without serious incident.

Even English was not going to pretend he was confident about winning it back, though he did get in a pitch for National's candidate Matt King.

He had not been meeting with National's natural constituency but even Harawira praised his te reo Maori efforts and a small boy had offered him a half-eaten biscuit.

Perhaps the biggest vote of confidence came when O'Sullivan presented him with an invitation to a future launch event for his next project. It was addressed to the Prime Minister - and it was in 2019.