“It’s starting to feel real now,” new Prime MInister Chris Hipkins said after he was sworn in as PM on Wednesday.
It will certainly feel pretty real soon – Hipkins does not have much time to rest on his laurels.
His rise to the job may have made National’s leader, Christopher Luxon, pretty invisible all week but it will not stay that way.
As we start to digest the Battle of Chris Luxon versus Chris Hipkins, it is already clear the year will be much less of a personal popularity contest.
Both have pledged to focus on the same thing: the cost of living.
Both will need to put up attractive propositions and sell them well. Most importantly, it will be a battle of trust – which Chris do you trust most?
Hipkins’ first jobs are partly administrative: new staff, a reshuffle of ministers and then his policy reset and outlining what Labour would now cut or prune from its programme.
Thus far he has not announced anything of significance. That does not mean he has not had a good start.
However, it is not sustainable to move in and hold repeated press conferences like his one on Wednesday at which he said very little beyond saying he had nothing to announce 15 times over.
The delay will also increase the sense of expectation that when he does have something to announce it will be a biggie.
The key question Hipkins should be asking himself when making decisions on what to cut is simple: will this play a part in losing us the election?
The question he should be asking himself in deciding what else Labour should do is also simple: will this help win us the election?
And in answering those questions about policies such as Three Waters, it might pay to remember the adage that explaining is losing.
With Three Waters in particular, Ardern has already tried the explaining option and it failed.
It leaves Hipkins with a bit of a conundrum. Will it be enough to simply change some aspects of it?
The opposition to it is now entrenched and far more widespread than Labour ever expected.
It has become the symbol of the “Labour is not listening” perception. Hipkins has shown that he has recognised he needs to move fast on that perception.
The proof of that was in the Know Thine Enemy approach he started with. His first full day as PM was spent in Auckland, not meeting the Labour membership or the unions but meeting businesses.
Auckland and business will be crucial. Hipkins made the right noises, judging from the responses of Auckland Business Chamber head Simon Bridges and some of the CEOs at that event.
He promised to look at their number one issue: immigration settings. And he promised to keep listening.
His immediate focus on business will be given more resonance than it perhaps merits. It is part of the everyday job of any PM to stay in touch with the business sector.
Let us not delude ourselves that will mean Hipkins outflanks Luxon when it comes to winning the support of business. But Labour does need to give itself a fighting chance – a constructive relationship is critical and when business is happy, it has a flow-on effect.
What should worry Luxon is if Hipkins does indeed shed identity and luxury items to focus squarely on the workers employed by those businesses.
Hipkins has more sceptics to appease than business. Auckland must be his primary target. Resentment built over those lockdown months and lingers. The regions are also angry about the raft of reforms affecting the rural sector.
In Auckland, he has to win back those suburban dwellers who shift their votes from left to right to left when the mood takes them. And he also has to ensure the ones who stay on the left actually get out to vote.
One of his main barriers to success will be getting those voters to the booth in 2023 – he faces the battle of trying to keep Labour’s core support base happy while also reaching the centre voters.
He needs the first to stay relatively strong in the polls. He needs the latter to win the election.
That inevitably means the first will be asked to swallow some dead rats and say ta-ta to some of the initiatives they were tied to.
You can’t just expect people to vote – they need something to vote for or against. That might be a particular policy, something that has made them angry, or a person.
That is where the loss of Ardern could hurt Labour: many of those who supported Labour in the last two elections turned out to vote for Ardern, the person, rather than the party she led.
Hipkins is a likable fellow but will not have the same effect on voters as Ardern.
Finding a way to get Labour voters to vote without Ardern is his big challenge.
The local body elections and Hamilton West byelection were early warning signs about turnout on the left. Labour needs south and west Auckland to vote or it hasn’t got a chance.
He cannot hold off on touching base with the core Labour base for that too long.
He is expected to meet unions next week. He does not intend to have an event to introduce himself to Labour supporters, saying he’s more interested in “getting on with it”.
Predictions for what Hipkins might do when he gets on with it have varied greatly. Some say light rail will come a cropper to Hipkins’ pledge to de-clutter Labour’s programme and focus money and energy where it is needed more.
Some - including former leader David Cunliffe - says Hipkins should and will scrap Three Waters and start again on the reform that has turned into a massive headache for Labour. Some say he will not: that it is already too far along.
The easiest – and most politically effective – thing to do would indeed be to halt it, admit the process was flawed and go back to the drawing board.
Hipkins in an interview with the Weekend Herald gave some hints that he would not halt it altogether but he was looking at both the role of local councils in the new structure and the co-governance aspects of it.
The question is whether that would do the job he needs it to do of neutralising Three Waters as a major election issue.
As for Ardern, she will now disappear for a time to give Hipkins his day without being in her shadow.