Fran on Key

Fran O’Sullivan: Key running into verbal danger – 01 Mar 2008 – Politics: New Zealand Political News, Analysis and Comment including 2008 election coverage – NZ Herald

Fran O’Sullivan discusses Key and warning him not to sleepwalk to victory. I don’t think he will, but Fran does give the warning.

National Party leader John Key gives all the appearances of being in cruise control, coasting down towards the election on the back of a huge poll lead.

He is not known as the smiling assassin for nothing. But he earned his stripes in the cut-throat world of international forex dealing, not politics.

Labour might still be able to trip him up if it is of a mind to ditch Helen Clark and convincingly sell its policies while Key stays immersed in “me-too-ism” mode; persuade voters that Key’s “George Bush-style” verbal mishaps are not gaffes at all but evidence of a hidden “New Right” policy agenda.

Or trick Key into mishandling the planned “neutron bomb” Labour is telling “the beltway” it will disclose – just which senior National MP allegedly conspired to bring Don Brash’s leadership down by leaking his private emails to Nicky Hager at the 2005 election.

Personally, I don’t think Key is that dumb to allow Labour to play silly cards like those. The “neutron bomb” will be a damp squib against National and will only be a neutron bomb for Labour’s poll ratings. Labour unbelievably, along with their client-blogs still think that personal attacks and smears will wash it with the public at large. i would have thought they would have learned by now. Alas they haven’t.

Right now Key’s greatest ally is Helen Clark. It is the Prime Minister’s successive political misjudgments which have cost Clark her position as New Zealand’s “most preferred prime minister” and sent Labour’s own ratings into a death spiral.

It was Clark’s inner circle, particularly her chief of staff Heather Simpson, who combined with the party central to plunder some $800,000 of taxpayers’ funds to help Labour win in 2005. Labour was ultimately forced to pay the funds back after a damning auditor-general’s report. The party has been on the back foot ever since.

But Clark didn’t learn. Her kitchen cabinet then put up the hapless former minister Mark Burton to introduce the obnoxious Electoral Finance Act which the Herald rightly labels “an assault on democracy”. It was another politically inept step which will continue to dog Labour right through this election year.

Last week’s surreal run of events illustrated just how far she has become detached from the bedrock common sense which characterised her earlier years as prime minister. The events included Clark publicly shunning Labour’s major financial donor Owen Glenn at the opening of the University of Auckland’s new business school and subsequent labelling the Herald as a “Tory paper which had shown no charity to Labour during its 91 years of existence”.

It has become a truism in the Wellington beltway that Labour will never roll the woman who has successfully won them three elections. But the Cabinet Ministers who were ruthlessly dispatched by Clark for minor misdeeds and the backbenchers who face the prospect of losing their jobs following an election defeat will make their own calculations.

In 1996, Michael Cullen – now deputy to Clark – led a deputation asking her to stand down to ensure an orderly leadership transition. Clark refused and went on to triumph in 1999. But that was then and this is now.

If Clark’s miscalculations continue the odds that she will face a second deputation will increase.

And now for the warnings about the inherent nastiness of Labour.

But if Cullen, with his superior management skills, took on a caretaker role the electoral focus would sharpen.

He is the politician Clark sends in to handle the tough jobs when inferior ministers fail. He has defused the foreshore and seabed issue and is now backstopping David Parker whose pig-headedness on climate change issues is paving the way for a major dust-up with New Zealand business.

Importantly, Cullen has Key’s measure. This was evident in Parliament where Key sat like a stunned mullet when Cullen took him to task over a newspaper report that quoted the National leader saying “we would love to see wages drop” during a conversation he held in Northland about the gaping wage differences between New Zealand and Australia.

Key’s comment does not make logical sense. But his propensity to mangle his syntax or wrong word himself gets him into trouble. This was evidenced at last year’s National Party conference with his embarrassing reference to a “Labour Government that I lead”.

If Labour had not been immersed in the Owen Glenn affair, courtesy of a misjudgment by party president Mike Williams, Cullen would have got much greater purchase with his claim that Key has a hidden agenda.

Cullen will continue to ruthlessly mine Key’s lapses of brain-mouth co-ordination. These won’t matter too much if and when Key gets to be prime minister. Political journalists will just laugh with and at him, as they did with former National Prime Minister Jim Bolger when he came back from each foreign tour with a new accent. But in the crucible of an election year the stakes are much higher.

It will not have escaped Key’s notice that Cullen will also try to snooker National by unveiling costly but popular policies in his forthcoming budget.

Key needs a gameplan to deal with Labour’s dirt agenda and much more discipline on the verbal front. If he can get on top of his weaknesses the election is his. If not, Labour may yet have a chance.