Party leaders matter. And party leaders don't matter. If that sounds like typical academic gobbledy-gook it probably is. "Bloody academics" my tradie partner would echo if anyone asked him. Let me qualify.

What I mean is experienced leaders matter, inexperienced ones don't. Which is why Bill English is the only candidate qualified to become leader of the National party and Prime Minister on Monday. And why, if the National caucus chooses an inexperienced leader on Monday, the National Party is sunk at the 2017 election.

The history of MMP is littered with failed rookies: ambitious MPs and Cabinet Ministers who presided over losing parties and/or were rolled by their caucuses before they had experienced a whole three year parliamentary term as party leader: Jenny Shipley, Bill English, Don Brash, David Shearer and David Cunliffe.

Political leadership is a long game. It takes years for voters to get to know and trust a leader and judge them to have sufficient credibility to lead the country. Jim Bolger had four years as party leader and Helen Clark had six before they became Prime Minister. John Key only had two, but Key was lucky.


Key's inexperience didn't really matter to National winning in 2008. After 2005's close election the pendulum had well and truly swung in National's favour and whoever was in charge of National was going to be Prime Minister in 2008. Hell, even Brash would have been Prime Minister if he had toughed it out through the email scandal that saw him resign in 2006.

It was convenient that Key was photogenic and media friendly. He listened, he was available, he shared (sometimes too much). He lucked into a period in history where we wanted to take selfies. We laughed at and with him. But that's not what made him prime ministerial.

The 2011 election was Key's first test as a leader after five years at the helm of the National Party. He gained his leadership experience through crisis management on the job, dealing with the GFC, the Pike River disaster, the Rena disaster, and the Canterbury earthquakes.

A less experienced Phil Goff was on a hiding to nothing leading the Labour Party into the 2011 election, but if he had hung in there until 2014 he would have had six years as opposition leader just like Clark and the 2014 election would have been a closely fought election. Instead Key was up against yet another rookie in Cunliffe, another man with no experience of party leadership and 12 months to prove himself. It wasn't nearly enough.

Had Key still been Prime Minister National would win 2017. Early deciding voters are strongly supporting National, the economy is strong and Key was up against two inexperienced leaders in Andrew Little and James Shaw.

While Key's announcement that he would be stepping down from the leadership took us by surprise on Monday, it is not a surprise that he has decided to leave just before election year. It's enough time to leave an experienced successor to prove they can take over the helm. It's not enough time for an inexperienced successor. Which is why with the short amount of time available before next year's election, there is only one member of the National caucus who has the experience to attempt to fill the gap. And that's Bill English.

Some are talking English down as the leader who led National to its worst defeat in 2002. But a little perspective is needed. Clark was experienced, while English had been National leader for only nine months. Labour was well ahead in the polls a year out from the election. It had been in government for only three years and there was no mood for change. Any rookie leader would have suffered the same loss as English in that situation. Even Key.

Of all the candidates standing English is the only one to have led the National Party, the only one to have been Acting Prime Minister, the only one to have shared the decision making with Key in those times of crisis, to have made the economic decisions that underlie this Government's policies, and the only one to have more leadership experience that Little and Shaw.

To try for a fourth term is defying the pull of the tide. This is not the time to pass leadership to a rookie who has never captained such a large tanker before.

Professor Claire Robinson is a Massey University expert in political leadership and election campaigning.