Bill English plainly wants to retire. He hardly bothers to hide it when he grins and bats away the speculation that started this week. Why wouldn't you when you've been to the top, you're 55, you have spent your life so far in public service and you'd like to try your hand at business.

And there's another thing not many people know. Running any big organisation is unrelenting hard work. Corporate chief executives often step down in their prime. Nine years as finance minister or prime minister is probably long enough for anybody. Sir John Key didn't want to do another three years, I don't think English did either.

He plainly wants to retire but faces a difficulty no previous prime minister has faced. Normally the electorate tells them when their time is up. Their government goes down in the polls and comes to a bitter end the next election night.

It is always bitter no matter how long the party has been in power and how weary its leader may be. It's the cruel fate of the most successful politicians to end their career in rejection. Helen Clark took it particularly hard; to her party's dismay, she resigned from its leadership that election night.


But the night last year was not at all bitter for the National Party. It was celebrating a fourth election victory, the first government to achieve this in nearly half a century. History and convention under MMP gave it every reason to believe an uncommitted small party would respect the result.

Now we are all in new territory, including English. His party remains very popular. A week ago I said I would be astounded if Labour did not pass National in the next poll on the news of the baby. Well, I'm astounded. TV3's Reid Research poll this week has National still ahead, on 44.5 per cent, the same level of support it had at the election.

There is no doubt why it is popular. The strength of the economy is obvious to everybody in business and anybody else who is not blinkered by political allegiance. And a large part of the reason for that strength is that National was a government that could withstand pressure to spend on feel-good but useless exercises like a three-year royal commission of inquiry into orphanages that no longer exist. Or a winter heating grant for everyone over 65, or a free year of tertiary education.

But English was much more than a fiscal conservative. As finance minister, he set up a meaningful social investment system for welfare spending. All governments like to call their welfare spending "investment" but English established a system of evaluating in advance where additional spending might turn around the lives of families and children at most risk of becoming long-term costs to the welfare, health and prison budgets.

Labour doesn't think governments should aim to save on social welfare and has already abandoned the system.

English, unusually for a National MP, came from the public service and understood how it works, or doesn't. He reckons departments most of the time have only a vague idea what their staff in the front offices are actually doing for people. Routines are followed, budgets are spent, nobody has to find out whether it's making much difference to people "whose lives are messy", as English puts it.

He believed the system could be vastly improved if the whole public service was given a set of specific, concrete, measurable targets. Such as reducing rheumatic fever by a stated figure. The targets were that narrow, but English argued they would force departments to work together to tackle the conditions that contribute to the illness.

Publishing difficult targets is politically risky. Labour has dropped the ones English set. Labour has set new ones for child poverty but the only device it offers is additional spending.

English may be hesitating to retire because he would like to fight for the survival of his social policy initiatives and he is leading an unusually strong Opposition. National is the largest party in Parliament. On many important issues it will be closer to Labour than NZ First is; on others, closer to NZ First than Labour is.

Already, National is likely to vote with Labour to ratify a slightly revised TPP. If Labour had not agreed to preserve 90-day trials for small employers, NZ First could certainly have done that with National's support. English has said the way to get things from this Government will be to lobby Winston Peters, though he could have added it might be necessary to convince National, too.

English is leading an Opposition of unprecedented strength and has a legacy to protect. He may be finding it hard to go but I think he will.