I had my doubts about Bill English.

It's not that I didn't think him capable. He's extremely so.

He's the smartest guy in Cabinet. He's across all portfolios. He's passionate about education, he wants social welfare to deliver results and he's anxious that Maori succeed. He's a veteran of 27 years in Parliament.

He's also a nice guy.


But he's no John Key. Key lit up the room and beamed warmth, happiness and confidence from radio and TV, day-in, day-out. We have never seen anything like it. That's a very hard act to follow.

It's especially so for English. He's Key's backroom boffin who has had to step up and out into the light. He's laconic and "aw shucks" on TV and radio. He suffered that disastrous defeat in 2002.

English started as Prime Minister exactly as I feared. Nothing changed. But then why would it? English has been running Government these past eight years. The settings are all his. He readily proved himself a proficient Prime Minister but without the sizzle. His interviews and media appearances were worthy but hard work.

I found myself missing Key's sparkle and banter.

And then English sheared that sheep. In front of a crowd. On TV. He did it efficiently, effortlessly and fast. There were no bloody nicks.

That changed everything. There was the difference. That's a guy we would have a beer with.

In that moment English proved himself useful. He can do things. He's a handy man to have about when things need doing. That one impressive display of skill, physicality and usefulness washed away the uselessness of a lifetime in Parliament, all that time in the Wellington bubble, all those long days in the office.

And yes, he's no media star. And yes, he's not practised and smooth. And yes, he's laconic and "aw shucks".


But all that now just serves to make him all the more authentic. Kiwis who shear sheep, who are handy, and who do things aren't smooth and full of banter. They just get on with the job. Indeed, they are suspicious of those who are smooth and polished.

In that minute English stepped up not as a poor man's Key but as leader in his own right and on his terms. He also marked out the difference.

We learnt in the Northland by-election that Key can't hammer a nail. It wasn't that he missed a couple of times; he was totally, deadset useless. He was a total embarrassment. He said afterwards he was no handyman. It didn't need saying.

"Bronagh gets a man in. Don't worry about that," he explained.

There's no need to "get a man in" if English is about. He's useful and can do things. He doesn't care for the Flash Harry stuff. He's too busy getting on with the job. I like it. It's perfect.