RELINQUISHING POWER holds almost as many dangers for a political leader as the risky business of acquiring it. If John Key had chosen December 2015 to announce his intention of retiring from politics in December 2016, then the past twelve months would have been a messy combination of House of Cards and Game of Thrones.
Factions would have consolidated around the National politicians most likely to succeed, and investors would have put their plans on hold until the shape of the new regime became clear. Politically and economically, giving New Zealand advance warning of his intention to step down would have been a very foolish thing for John Key to have done. And whatever else he may be, John Key is no fool.
Surprising everyone with his resignation (and everyone was surprised) while simultaneously nominating Bill English as his preferred successor and Steven Joyce as Finance Minister has drastically restricted the room for manoeuvre of all the other claimants to National’s vacant throne. Key’s early identification of his preferred succession team also serves another important purpose. It forces English’s and Joyce’s rivals, Judith Collins and Paula Bennett, to play the role of “rebel pretenders” to Key’s throne.
If either, or both, women force the issue to a Caucus vote they will be painted by English and Joyce (and Key?) as selfish and disruptive. In the face of the shock and dismay which the Prime Minister’s resignation has occasioned both inside and outside of the National Party, the succession team will argue strongly that the interests of the country are best served by a calm and smooth transition of power. They will insist that the last thing National needs; the last thing New Zealand needs; is for these two ambitious women to plunge the governing party into a bitter struggle for power.
Whether or not the combined influence of Key, English and Joyce proves sufficient to squash the ambitions of Collins and Bennett depends on how many members of the National Caucus are willing to persist with Key’s Labour-Lite policy settings. While he could point to three election victories on the trot and consistently favourable poll results, Key’s ideological apostasy, while not forgiven, could, at least, be overlooked. With Key gone, however, those wishing to restore National’s right-wing default settings may yet decide that the tree of free-market capitalism is in urgent need of watering with the blood of the party’s leading pragmatists.
For Andrew Little and Labour, a win for the National Right would be the best possible outcome of Key’s departure. As Matthew Hooton commented, only this morning, the Labour Party in 2017 will not be running – as Michael Wood was running – against Pamjeet Parmar, but against John Key: a very different proposition altogether. Well, not any more. Labour may have had no answer to the political shape-shifter who dominated New Zealand politics so effortlessly for the best part of a decade, but finding the correct answer to the right-wing sneers of Collins and Bennet – that will not be a problem.
Which is why Key left vacant the position of Deputy Prime Minister. His clear message to Collins and Bennett: if you want to fight over something – fight over the deputy’s slot. That way, if English fails to win National a fourth term, a successor will be ready and waiting. Neat.
But then, everything about John Key’s fourteen-year run in New Zealand politics has been neat and tidy. Almost as if, at some point early in his career, he had negotiated a deal with Mephistopheles & Partners Ltd.
Perhaps that’s it? Perhaps the principal shareholder in Mephistopheles & Partners Ltd has decided to call in his debt? Perhaps John Key’s unprecedented mode of departure is his severance package?
To leave office undefeated and unpushed; with New Zealand’s economy the envy of the OECD, and with his party hovering implausibly close to 50 percent in the polls; no one has done it before – and it will be a long time before anybody does it again.
What a way to go!