Within the deep recesses of the Labour Party and elsewhere on the left, there is a lingering arrogance saturated with an intellectual snobbery which blinds and deludes its sufferers.

The second anniversary of John Key becoming Prime Minister has been and gone. But the self-satisfied superiority and smugness exhibited by his critics continues unabated.

They cannot bring themselves to accept that Key's occupation of Premier House follows anything but a terrible mistake on the part of voters who will come to their senses in time for next year's election.

The left dismisses the most popular Prime Minister in New Zealand's recent political history as Smile and Wave John Key, Do Nothing John Key and Lucky John Key.

The left's fatal error has been to constantly underrate Key in terms of ability and the fact that though he is of centre-right disposition, he is firmly at the moderate end of that broad spectrum.

Key does not fit the left's mould, which assumes or even dictates that someone as wealthy as him must be an acolyte of the old New Right.

In short, Key's critics on the left still don't get it. Maybe the Mana byelection will remove a few scales from a few eyes. It should. That result was a gruesome preview of the slaughter that may well be inflicted on Labour at the end of next year.

National's stunning performance in the byelection and stellar showings in the polls are reasons enough for according Key the title of Politician of the Year.

A year ago, everyone was wondering when Key's "honeymoon" with voters would be over. No one bothers to talk about honeymoons any more. National's bull run in the polls just kept on keeping on.

Take the Roy Morgan poll. Backing for National has fluctuated between a low of 48.5 per cent and a high of 53.5 per cent. That adds up to between 3 and 8 percentage points above the level recorded by National in winning the 2008 election.

National and its allies began this year on 55.5 per cent, against the Opposition parties' total of 44.5 per cent. The most recent Morgan poll conducted last month produced exactly the same result.

Barring an economic meltdown, there is little to suggest this run will not persist through 2011.

Critics from the right bemoan Key's refusal to exploit this surplus of support and implement more radical, right-wing policies.

But his priority has been to build trust with voters so that in a second parliamentary term he can carry them with him as National tackles big-ticket items like welfare reform, the recommendations of the savings working group and possible part-privatisation of some state-owned enterprises.

Key is immovable on this. His pre-election pledge to resign if he alters the age of eligibility or the formula for paying state-funded super meant rejection of this week's moderate proposal by the Retirement Commission to raise the age of qualification to 67 by two months a year from 2020 onwards.

But even if Key privately thought the idea had merit, no way was he going back on his word.

The combination of Key's positioning of National as a moderate centre-right party and the trust-building combines with a unique ability to strike a rapport with almost anyone at an individual or national level.

But nothing is taken for granted. Key's front-footedness in his handling of two national crises, the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake and the Pike River mine explosion, flowed from ensuring sufficient back-up from Government departments.

The margin for error on such occasions is small. Helen Clark was once a day late turning up to inspect some North Island floods - too late to appease the gripes and cries of "where is the Government?".

That cry was not heard with regard to The Hobbit. Key delivered. As he did in his response to the death of a New Zealand soldier in Afghanistan - grieving, yet simultaneously defending the reason the soldier was there.

Key has been criticised for lacking the "bold vision", the "big picture" or the "grand plan". But voters no longer pine for such things. They see them as the harbingers of nasty surprises.

Key has obliged by turning National back into a true conservative party that manages change, rather than necessarily initiating it.

Where he has initiated it - driving the review of MPs' perks for example - he has ensured he is on the right side of public opinion.

Key's focus rarely strays from the domestic politics. He is an avid consumer of his party's private polling, against which he measures his finely honed political instincts.

They have not always been sound. The mining in national parks fiasco is the pre-eminent example.

The Paul Henry affair another. There have been vexed issues where he cannot satisfy everyone, the foreshore and seabed, Tuhoe's claims to the Urewera National Park and South Canterbury Finance among them.

There have been messy internal ructions which required the carpeting of colleagues such as Pansy Wong and Phil Heatley.

Above all, the economy remains on the slow burner.

Labour's frustration is that Key rides above all this. But Clark did too - for a time.

Key's leadership style, while firm, is less acidic than hers. The electorate may take longer to tire of it .

As was the case with National's caucus at Clark's zenith, no one in Labour's came close to matching Key this year.

Phil Goff had a curate's egg of a year - good in patches, horrid in others.

This week summed it up. The Opposition leader's big end-of-year speech was eclipsed by him referring to David Cunliffe as "David Caygill", a colleague of Goff's in the 1980s.

Then Labour's electorate organisation in Chris Carter's Te Atatu seat went troppo. The selection battle in George Hawkins' Manurewa seat risks turning into open warfare over the power of the party's trade union wing.

Then Goff was caught ripping off the theme of "the squeezed middle" from his British counterpart, Ed Miliband.

In seeming desperation, he capped all this off by withdrawing Labour's support for Government legislation on the foreshore and seabed.

It might look good politics by outflanking National on the right. It was also another example of rank opportunism. For the second summer in a row, Goff has toyed with the race genie in this guise, though this year's case falls far short of last year's Winston Peters-esque attempt to milk the issue.

The Greens hover, still in transition. Russel Norman had a solid year, but still comes across as something of a cold fish. Metiria Turei, who does show real passion, is still searching for the right policy niche to display it.

Act? Forget it. Its MPs would be delighted if you did after the year that party has had.

The Maori Party's Tariana Turia secured whanau ora. But then she was always going to do so. Te Ururoa Flavell continues to impress. But it is Rahui Katene who has advanced by leaps and bounds this year.

Within National, Steven Joyce's star continues to rise. At times overly cautious, he has yet to be really tested by the demands and pressures of a really high-profile portfolio.

Tony Ryall continues to do what a good health minister should do - make his portfolio and its many problems invisible.

Simon Power continued his record as a serial legislator, but is marked down for failing to grab the Law Commission's excellent report on the liquor laws with both hands and make a real difference to the culture of drinking to excess.

Bill English made raising GST look politically easier than it is - even with compensating income tax cuts. He did so by carefully doing the groundwork with lobby groups and readying people in advance so that confirmation of the rise was greeted without distress.

That was in marked contrast to the absence of any notion of public relations on Gerry Brownlee's behalf when it came to mining in national parks.

Yet, if anyone comes anywhere close to Key's showing, it was Brownlee. He achieved one of the most rapid recoveries of a politician's image, first, by his adept on-the-spot handling of the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake and then to a smaller extent by being the Government's presence on the West Coast after Pike River.

But Key takes the crown. The message from that to the left is simple - only when you start to respect your enemy will you have any chance of defeating him.