IF there is a perfect way to leave politics, Bill English has probably done it - with his party at the top of the polls after nine years in government and the economy it managed still strong.

As he was announcing his retirement, the Treasury revealed a larger-than-expected Budget surplus for the second half of last year, the economy having generated $600 million more tax for the new Labour-led Government.

But what makes his departure possibly unique is that his final election was not the defeat that eventually has come to all previous prime ministers who stayed the course.

His government was denied a fourth term by a small party that put the second-placed party in power for the first time under MMP.

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English came into Parliament at just 28 with the National landslide in 1990. The country was in the most painful phase of economic reform, and recession.

Though he had come from the Treasury, English was not a radical reformer.

He watched that Government become the most unpopular in recent history as Finance Minister Ruth Richardson cut public spending. National survived the 1993 election by one seat. It was a scare English never forgot.

He led National to its worst defeat on record in 2002, a result that, rather unfairly, he could not live down.

Against a first-term government doing well enough to deserve re-election, many National supporters gave their vote to small parties that could influence Labour in coalition.

English sought the leadership again when it became vacant at the end of 2006 but by than National had a new rising star.

He and Sir John Key were to form a formidable duo. Successful government is built on a strong finance minister in tandem with a popular prime minister.

When English and Key came to office amid the global financial crisis the country was in recession again but they did not cut spending.

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The Budget went deep into deficit, and deeper when earthquakes devastated Christchurch.

English gives Key the credit for ruling out retrenchment at that time and Key gives English the credit for bringing the books back to health subsequently.

English convinced the Government to treat social welfare as an investment that would ultimately reduce costs if it was directed to people at greatest risk of becoming longer-term state dependents.

He cited social investment as his proudest achievement and he departs with respect on both sides of Parliament and a record of economic management that will be hard to match. NZME