National leader’s law and order police focused more on building fence at top of cliff than ambulances at bottom.

History books will show Bill English to be sandwiched between John Key and Jacinda Ardern. "A prime minister who ran twice and never won" will almost certainly be a pub quiz question at some point. The brutal reality of politics could not be more on show than it is for a person so close to an important and largely unrecognised legacy.

The Todd Barclay affair and his support of Steven Joyce's $11.7 billion budget lie have blotted English's copybook, but history will dwell only briefly on those issues. The fact that English led the National Party to a devastating and record loss in 2002 and another in 2017 despite being the party with the most votes will forever be remembered. But it's important to record what could have been.

At first blush, taking the reins of a government seeking a fourth term and replacing a popular prime minister was a hiding to nothing. But it quickly became apparent that while English had none of the charisma of his predecessor, he had spades more substance.

John Key will be remembered for being incredibly popular and little else. Certainly he led New Zealand out of the global financial crisis. But simply cutting taxes and increasing debt will ensure charges of creativity are never levelled at him. Having occupied nearly nine years in office, it's remarkable that Key has no true legacy-defining policies or initiatives. No nuclear free policy, no Mother of All Budgets, no Cullen Fund.

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Key was also flattered by a Labour Opposition that was about as fierce as a wet tissue. English faced Jacinda. And he beat her.

After the bell he raised his arms in victory, only to be knocked out by the realities of MMP. English has proven he can get up off the mat, but unless the new coalition shows early signs of imploding, the chances of him being there for another shot at the title are near zero.

English wouldn't be human if he isn't haunted by the idea of what might have been in 2017. So long was he a loyal deputy that he fixated on defending the status quo, and he forgot that in important ways he was an agent for change who was focusing on some of the most significant issues facing New Zealand. Some of us haven't.

Within criminal justice circles, for example, English's admission from 2011 that New Zealand prisons were moral and fiscal failures has become an important marker.

It signalled a radical rethink within the Department of Corrections as the focus swung toward questions of rehabilitation. And slowly political and public conversations changed too. The Sensible Sentencing Trust went from being ubiquitous to being marginalised in the media.

It speaks to English's quiet confidence and the value of his political currency that he could not only get away with it, but that he will be remembered for a remarkable pivot point, upon which law and order policy and public opinion hinged.

But that's not the legacy interrupted. English understood that rehabilitating offenders is difficult, expensive and inefficient. Smart money will be spent changing the conditions that set young people on a path to crime.

Under English's direction, Treasury identified four risk factors that indicate the life course of kids. Those with more risk factors were far more likely to underachieve in education, end up on benefits, and commit more crime. They also cost the state on average more than quarter of a million dollars apiece (against just $33,000 for our luckier kids). The fiscal imperative for a moral obligation.

The risk factors (reported abuse; a benefit since birth; a parent in prison; and a mother without qualifications) were reportable measures so when social agencies flagged them as present in a family a co-ordinated intervention could occur to help create positive changes. While others were hollering about providing more ambulances at the bottom of the cliff, English was designing a fence at the top.

Why this policy approach wasn't front-and-centre during the campaign is a question with only unsatisfactory answers. I'm convinced it was a political error. I'm equally convinced that if Winston had pointed the tiller right, then English would have sailed his government with great purpose into territory that others have steered clear of; the problems deemed too hard and the politics too difficult.

English had an opportunity to define himself as a conservative who was an agent of change on Labour's home ground and defend it on either social or economic grounds. He was remarkably well placed to do so because he knew the position was right.

Instead he went for boot camps.

Whoever gave him that advice got it wrong and potentially robbed him - and perhaps us - of an important legacy. If there is a single word that kills good intentions, that word is politics.

The ball is now in Jacinda's court.

Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions. He is an award-winning writer who specialises in research with practical applications.