Former Prime Minister Sir John Key believes his successor Bill English delivered a "fantastic election result, "better than I could have".

He thinks the result vindicated his decision to step down nine months ago. "I left on my own terms because I believed we could transition successfully and continue on. So for me success is exactly what happened on Saturday night.

"If Bill had delivered a bad result and the party had lost a lot of MPs people might have looked at me and said that was a selfish step, whereas what happened was, Bill delivered a fantastic result, a better result that I could have. What that shows is we renewed and refreshed and gave ourselves a way, I think, of looking and sounding a little bit different."

Key was overseas for much of the campaign but says he was able to keep in touch - watching the first leaders' debate in his cabin on a cruise ship off Croatia, with Bronagh telling him to stop shouting at the screen. He was also in frequent cellphone contact with English and National's campaign.


He was in New Zealand, though, when Jacinda Ardern was catapulted into the Labour leadership. "I immediately thought she would present the risk she actually did to National because whatever you think of the policies of Jacinda Ardern, she is a very competent and smooth communicator and she had demonstrated that in the time I was in Parliament.

Former National Prime Minister Sir John Key views the election result as,
Former National Prime Minister Sir John Key views the election result as, "a very strong wish for continuation of a National-led government. Photo / Greg Bowker

"On our side we were always worried about her capacity to get cut through with a lot of different voting groups and she, to her credit, did that. She came out positive, ambitious, and those sort of thing resonate well. She made an absolutely fundamental flaw when she couldn't explain the tax policy. That was the captain's call she got wrong and in time will look back and regret it."

Naturally, Key views the election result as, "A very strong wish for continuation of a National-led government. Mathematically Winston Peters can put together a government with Labour and the Greens but the reality is, to do that he would have to go against what he has always done (support the winning party), and he would have to step away from the fundamental core value of democracy which is majority rule.

"Labour is 10 percentage points behind National and the combined Labour and Greens are five percentage points being National. To go with them you would have to believe that the country wanted change, and to demonstrate that we would have had to lose a lot of seats. We only lost Christchurch Central, not unexpected, and our party vote held up brilliantly so I don't think you can argue this was a change election in the minds of voters."

He does not think National and NZ First are far apart on many issues. Key had expected he would have to do a deal with Peters after the 2014 election and, like English, believes the secret to working with him is respect.

"Winston is an old-fashioned politician. I've had plenty of scraps with him but he is a person who expects respect and to be fair to him, gives respect. He has a lot of respect for the institution of Parliament. You have to go in there (negotiations) in good faith, knowing you have to give things up. That doesn't mean you'd give the ranch away but there is nothing there Bill English and the team won't expect.

"Peters will want to have a Labour-Greens option on the other side to get the best deal he can for his supporters. But would he go with the other side?" Key doubts it.
The Government he led in three elections has recorded historic achievement by winning a fourth but he gave the credit to English yesterday.

"The thing I'm really proud of is that it was an utter and emphatic victory for Bill English as a person. Our caucus sees a different side of Bill than the public see. (The public) probably saw him as the dry finance minister, maybe the Southland boy. But I was always convinced he would come into his own as a very fine Prime Minister, primarily because his values are those we'd all want to emulate."

Key says he misses the camaraderie of his former life but has no regrets about leaving. "Every politician knows their career will come and go. It's like being an athlete. I caught up with Richie McCaw recently. He was loving watching the game but I don't think he was wishing he was running back out there again."