Reputation studiously rebuilt after a political mauling 14 years ago, the new PM now has chance to right the record, writes Claire Trevett.

Bill English allowed himself just one smile when he turned up to front media after the road to the Prime Ministership opened for him on Thursday.

It was not quite as big as his grin earlier in the day when he showed off the $8 billion surpluses he had managed to get in the forecasts, but it was harder earned. It has been a long road.

The immediate questions facing English he couldn't answer. When would he do his reshuffle? Would he call an early election?

The answer to the second will be "no". An early election would be about July. The last time New Zealand had an election in July was in 2002.

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The fewer similarities between that Winter of Discontent the better, as far as English is concerned.

THE LONG ROAD TO REDEMPTION:

English entered Parliament at the start of the Jim Bolger-led Government in 1990 at the age of 29. He and his fellow 1990'ers, Tony Ryall, Nick Smith, and Roger Sowry, were promptly dubbed the "Brat Pack" but English was always the one tipped for leadership.

After 11 years in Parliament he got there when he rolled Jenny Shipley in October 2001. He was dubbed the "new generation" leader.

Nine months later, on election night in 2002, a broken English was led away in tears by a staff member after National hit rock-bottom with a 21.8 per cent result.

It had been a torrid election campaign which only NZ First and United Future benefited from.

Labour too had struggled as Helen Clark was hit by the Corngate affair exposed in Nicky Hager's book. But National's result was catastrophic.

Within National, there were varying opinions as to how much of the blame English should wear. His supporters say he was let down by the party which had failed to come through with the funding and organisation English needed.

It did not really matter - in the eyes of the public it was English who had failed.

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Chris Finlayson was a party official at the time and had known English since 1987. He said English was left to carry the can for an abysmal failure to deliver by the party.

He recalls the election: "It was a nightmare. Every morning you'd wake up and hear 'another horror poll for National'. And I don't think anyone has been through hell the way he went through hell in 2002 and then suffered the massive disappointment of losing out to Brash.

"It was a searing, unbelievably bleak time. A lesser person would have simply sloped off and said 'who needs this?"

Bill English gets ready for his fight against the yet to be known THe Psyclone at the weigh in for the Yellow Ribbon Fight For Life. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Bill English gets ready for his fight against the yet to be known THe Psyclone at the weigh in for the Yellow Ribbon Fight For Life. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Instead English gritted his teeth. After Don Brash rolled him as leader he plugged away to become one of National's greatest assets in Opposition, hammering Labour in the education portfolio and over measures such as the Electoral Finance Act.

English said in a Herald interview once that the reason he soldiered on was because of his children.

"I'd been telling my kids for years that if they get knocked down they should get up so, in a very public event, I kind of had to do it myself. I had to do it myself to demonstrate integrity to them. That was a big motivator."

It is a time English has referred to again in recent days, saying "you learn more from losing than you do from winning".

Nonetheless taking on the leadership again and putting his carefully rebuilt reputation back on the line is no small thing for English. The extent to which Key was a factor in National's polling is an unknown and English will have to test that.

That was why Key went to English way back in September and told him he intended to resign. It was to give English time to get used to the idea of being leader again - and to talk him into it.

Bill English, with John Key, on his way to the House to read his Budget 2015. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Bill English, with John Key, on his way to the House to read his Budget 2015. Photo / Mark Mitchell

DEPUTY TO KEY

When Don Brash resigned in 2006 there were long talks at Key's Parnell house.

Key and English were the only possible options to replace him.

A deal was brokered for Gerry Brownlee to step aside as deputy and Bill English to take the deputy role.

Long time friend Nick Smith said they were considered the "dream team" because they were politically similar. "They straddle that space of being a centre-right, very much in the traditions of the National Party - compassionate conservatism, but believing in enterprise and opportunity."

He said at that point English effectively resigned himself to the knowledge he would never become Prime Minister.

"Both Bill and those close to him assumed the bus had passed him by for being PM of New Zealand when he took the decision to serve as John's deputy."

The "extraordinary decision" by Key to resign and pass the baton has changed that.

"Politics is a bruising business and Bill has taken some of the hardest punches. But equally he is incredibly committed to politics and what you can achieve through the process of Government."

He said the rigours of English's career had made him a better politician and person.

Bill English strips down to show his support for team New Zealand as they leave the dock to face Alinghi in race four of the Americas Cup. Photo / Getty Images
Bill English strips down to show his support for team New Zealand as they leave the dock to face Alinghi in race four of the Americas Cup. Photo / Getty Images

VOTER APPEAL

Some National ministers are oblivious, but National conducts polls on individual ministers to assess their impact and palatability with voters.

Key anointed English because English was trusted by voters.

But it might take more than that. English has convinced business - he did that long ago. He is highly regarded by his staff. The question is whether he can convince the rest of New Zealand.

English has long been a foil to Key. English once described himself as a stayer and Key as a sprinter. "I grind away, John just bounces from cloud to cloud."

English will not even try to emulate Key - after so many years in the public eye, his own personality is too well known to even bother trying photoshopping it.

"Everyone knows it will work differently from when John Key was in charge. I won't be able to, and I won't do things the same way as John."

Smith said English was installed as Key's deputy partly because the front bench was not sure how Key - who had no ministerial experience - would handle going straight into the PM's chair.

English was appointed as Miyagi to Key, the Grasshopper.

Before long the roles had reversed somewhat.

Even English has credited Key with teaching him about being a politician, saying he had a front row seat to a "master class in leadership" every day for eight years.

Asked what kind of Prime Minister New Zealand can expect, Smith says Key and English are in a similar place politically.

As for the difference in style, Smith points to John Howard in Australia. "John Howard had his arse completely kicked and was written off politically in 1987 against Bob Hawke, but went on to be one of Australia's most successful and longest serving Prime Ministers."

Former National MP Katherine Rich also says the election loss and then being beaten by Brash would have destroyed many. "The thing that is so admirable about him is he's a bit like Churchill. He's been through the best and worst in politics, but he keeps going."

Barack Obama and wife Michelle Obama greet Deputy Prime Minister Bill English to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit dinner on November 12, 2011. Photo / Getty Images
Barack Obama and wife Michelle Obama greet Deputy Prime Minister Bill English to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit dinner on November 12, 2011. Photo / Getty Images

The word most often used when MPs were explaining why they were backing English was "integrity". It was also the word National's three support parties used when they came out in favour of English as leader.

English is credited with much of the management of the coalition relations. Former Maori Party co-leader Dame Tariana Turia held him in very high regard. Her successor, Marama Fox, does as well, saying once she did not have Key's cellphone number - but it didn't matter because she had English's.

The only real personal "scandal" to beset English in his time as Finance Minister was in 2009 when there was a furore over his Wellington accommodation allowances for his family home in Wellington.

It was technically within the rules but reeked of a worse crime: hypocrisy. He was a finance minister implementing cuts across the public service during the Global Financial Crisis who was squeezing every drop he could out of his own taxpayer allowances.

English paid the allowances back and moved on.

His analysis of himself as the "stayer" and the "grinder" are accurate. He once said "I specialise in being boring". It was part of the job description of a finance minister. It is not the job description of a prime minister.

His supporters - and they are many - say he is key to National as a policy architect.

English is an advocate of slow government and incremental reform rather than bangs and whistles.

Rich says that is an under-appreciated art in politics.

"Some people think politics is supposed to be more like business where you have new brands and new products every few months. People want new and exciting politicians, but great political leadership is about learning the role over years and decades."

She points to the "social investment" approach as English's baby - the restructure of the delivery of social services to frontload support to stop people going on to the dole in the first place or staying there.

Bill English and his wife Mary. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Bill English and his wife Mary. Photo / Paul Estcourt

A HECK OF A WEEK

Turning up to announce he was withdrawing from the contest on Wednesday, Jonathan Coleman began "it's been a heck of a week".

He then went on to announce his decision, removing the last roadblock between English and the Prime Minister's job.

English did not exactly let it go to his head. Paul Henry desperately tried to wring some emotion - any emotion - out of him the next day. The best English could muster was an "of course, some excitement", sounding about as excited as a hospital patient waiting for the next meal to arrive.

Before 2014 English had started preparing the decks to leave, surrendering his Clutha-Southland seat and going on to the party list. He had expected to wander off into the sunset with Key, probably sometime in the next term, even if they had won in 2017.

He admitted as much, telling Paul Henry he had expected to serve out his time under a Key government.

Yet here he is, reincarnated. It was an unexpected comeback.

In 2002, English went to the WestpacTrust Community Theatre in Hamilton to deliver his campaign closing speech.

He began by telling his supporters "it's been a hard campaign. One of the toughest."

He urged them to "ignore the polls".

"Because you know what? We can do it."

The campaign line that worked for Barack Obama in 2008 did not work for English in 2002. Fourteen years later, Key has given English the chance to right the record.