How will Finance Minister Bill English handle unhappy news next Tuesday when the Treasury updates its Budget forecasts, as it is obliged to do before next month's election?

There's a clue in the way he handled the largest budget deficit in New Zealand's history - $18.4 billion, as set out in the final accounts presented by the Treasury last week - or in the way he handled the double downgrade of New Zealand's credit rating last month.

Without an iota of embarrassment or discomfiture.

He follows the time-honoured practice of Governments in owning the achievements and disowning the failures.


On past form, English will turn Tuesday's bad news to his advantage, reinforcing the need to stay National's course - to keep a tight rein on public spending, to cut longterm welfare dependency, to keep borrowing down and savings up.

And he will use the gloomy news to paint high-cost policies by other parties as profligate and irresponsible.

The inevitable decline in growth forecasts will be blamed on events beyond his control, in Europe, the United States and Canterbury.

It may well be the last time the electorate gives National a chance to blame someone or somewhere else for worse out-turns than those promised.

National's Southern Man has emerged from his first full term as Finance Minister as a dependable, safe pair of hands, having weathered a ministerial housing scandal early in his tenure.

The pressure in a second term would be greater, and much of it self-imposed. English has made it clear National won't budge on its commitment to get the books back into surplus in the 2014-15 year.

If this weekend's summit in Europe on Greece's debt crisis fails to deliver the leadership required and the world goes back into recession, an uncompromising track to surplus could require greater cuts in public expenditure and a risk of choking the recovery.

None of this will be a risk for National before the election, but it could turn ugly afterwards.


Amid all the uncertainty, there is one certainty: if National wins a second term, Bill English will still be Finance Minister.

The only alternative is Steven Joyce. There was speculation when English was mired in his housing scandal and Joyce's star was rising that Joyce would step into the Finance role for a second term, but that has long since evaporated.

Joyce is close to Prime Minister John Key. He chairs National's political strategy group and the election campaign committee.

He could well move into the Economic Development and Science and Innovation portfolios.

But there would be no question that English would keep finance.

Any challenge to that notion is from Opposition parties playing to the media, or by the media looking for some spicy conflict. But it is not an issue in National.


There is no reason to break what has been a highly successful partnership between Key and English.

That partnership began as a negotiated one, not a natural one, in 2006 when Key was set to replace Don Brash as leader.

English led a small but important faction in the caucus, including Simon Power and Katherine Rich, who had become disaffected after Brash ousted English and they needed to be part of Key's team, not an adjunct.

Gerry Brownlee made the sacrifice and stepped down as deputy leader so the party could unite under Key and English.

In English, Key had a deputy who had the things he didn't - experience in politics, an abiding interest in policy development and detail, and National Party blood running through his veins.

Key's inexperience turned out not to be a big disadvantage because he learned so quickly.


But their talents still complement each other's. Key is the out-there optimistic, socially liberal, rather poll-driven leader; English is the laconic, understated, socially conservative, intellectually robust deputy.

The angry "bitter Bill" of Opposition days disappeared with the acquisition of real power, probably more than the Prime Minister, and an acceptance that he will never be Prime Minister.

Not for want of trying, the media has been unable to detect any sense of discord.

They get on well but confound the sceptics with a mock disloyalty, making jokes against each other, but only in the way that friends can get away with.

These days, Key is almost always on top of policy detail at the times he is required to be, such as at launches or in times of crisis.

The reason he leaves his ministers fairly much alone, compared with Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark, is because he can be confident English is across all the important policy development.


English is the one with the plans, the quiet reformer, who is steadily reshaping the public sector to make more room for the private sector, be it in the management of prisons, administration of social housing, or ownership of state assets.

The fiscal pressures have given English the political scope to reshape the public sector the in way he would like to have done, even if the global recession had not happened.

There has also been a pattern to the way reforms are developed under National - set up a taskforce, appoint people of high credibility but who are likely to deliver the result National wants, issue discussions documents and interim reports along the way so there is no shock at the end result.

English has taken a close interest in the less-experienced ministers, such as Phil Heatley in Housing, Anne Tolley in Education, and Nathan Guy in Internal Affairs.

Lately, he has been working with Paula Bennett in Social Development in his role co-ordinating all policy for the election campaign.

National's welfare reform plans will be unveiled soon and promise to be controversial.


John Key's legacy to National has been his ability to deliver power through popular leadership. Bill English's legacy will be in the way he has exercised power.