Something old, something new, something plodding, something blue.

Bill English made his first stab at refashioning National's shadow Cabinet yesterday, trying to match a limited talent pool with the need to kick-off the long march back to the centre.

Not surprisingly, the finance role has proved the most difficult to fill.


The new leader's first instinct was to drop it altogether rather than burden himself with the dual role and resurrect nightmares of Robert David Muldoon - the last time a finance spokesman rose to the leadership and took the purse strings with him.

But finding a suitable replacement proved near impossible, leaving Bill English staring at himself in the mirror.

The only solution was to keep the job for a vaguely defined period while he grooms the basement-profile David Carter to take over before the election.

English's problem was not trivial and it is not clear he has solved it.

Firstly, no one else in National's ranks has articulated the new "pragmatic centrism" he is chasing.

At times there is even the impression the new pragmatism is only English-deep in National.

How will those with as much right-wing baggage as Jenny Shipley, Lockwood Smith, Maurice Williamson and even Tony Ryall fit with the new ideology-free National look?

Will they be able to come to terms with not automatically advocating asset sales, tax cuts, anti-union laws, and low social spending?

Will they be able to bring themselves to adopt Maori-friendly policies?

More importantly, English needs to change the public's perception of National from a party rooted in and still wedded to the Rogernomics reforms to one that is pragmatic and flexible; less doctrinaire, more centrist; a third way of looking at things which is more ... Blairite?

In that regard, Carter has the advantage of not being type-cast as a disciple of the old Rogernomics.

English yesterday found favour with the Christchurch MP's business background, his experience as chair of the finance and expenditure committee and as a "safe pair of hands".

But in an election campaign, the media's focus is almost exclusively on the leader and the future finance minister. There is nothing yet to suggest that adding Carter to English will provide a match for Cullen and Clark.

Finally, Carter, or whoever English finally chooses if he doesn't measure up, will have to be a credible voice rather than a risk-free void. Otherwise Act leader Richard Prebble will fill it, both in the policy debate and the public's perception of an alternative Government.

To leave the impression that the unpopular Prebble, laden with baggage from the Rogernomics era, could be the supremo in the finance area would make a National-Act coalition that much more difficult to elect. Worse, it would negate all English's efforts to claim a foothold in the pragmatic centre ground of economic policy.

Interestingly, it was this issue that Finance Minister Michael Cullen homed in on after the reshuffle was announced.

By retaining the post in the meantime, English has given himself a chance to bed in his economic view, establish his less doctrinaire policy on things like taxation, spending, regional development and privatisation, and set a superannuation policy before handing over to Carter sometime next year.

In the meantime, Lockwood Smith will be confined to fiscal policy in his associate's role, well away from policy formation.

Establishing a new approach will be crucial to the party's repositioning.

English knows that over the next 10 years the population will age and brown, and these are crucial constituencies for any party.

(English is 39. He was a politically aware man in his early 20s at the time of the 1984 reforms, and a senior minister in the 1990s, so it is not as easy as he might like to shrug off as irrelevant the fractious ideological past.)

The message will be that where Clark's Labour Party has adopted the Blairite paraphernalia - the credit card, the sensitivity to public opinion and the firm media management - National will edge closer to the new international mainstream of British Labour.

More so, as Clark makes the inevitable drift leftward, if not this term then next.

There is no doubt English does represent a policy shift from Shipley. For English, squeezing spending and social services to accommodate a tax cut may be a cure worse than the disease.

Interestingly, Shipley had been saying how much policy work was done and how it would be revealed in a spring offensive. English says little work has been done, and the party now needs to assess that - with important changes to come.

Not surprisingly, not all the completed policy work now represents the new thinking, and some is in many cases detail rather than the "big bang" needed to make an impression in Opposition.

So far, English's policy vision has been broad-brush - a cut with the past, a willingness to consider everything on its merits and assess it on its contribution to economic growth.

The argument runs that he will be able to argue for as much private involvement in health and education as necessary.

Where Clark will have trouble cutting taxes, English will be able to cut "where necessary" with the emphasis on business taxes.

Where Cullen would struggle to get an asset sale past his caucus, English will be able to take a case-by-case approach.

Where Cullen is committed to up to $2 billion a year for the superannuation fund, English will be able to invest more in health and education.

What price an election campaign pitting a bigger-spending National Party against a fiscally tight Labour Party?

And how will the public perceive this "NewNational" agenda?

In the short term, the sudden softening on the ideological model may come across as blatant "me-tooism" as the Opposition takes a less oppositional approach to current Government policy.

Longer term, National will need to make the pragmatic coherent, integrated and plausible.

But until National can persuade the public, and itself, that it has cast off its past and returned to the centre, then, as one close ally put it, Bill English is the message.