Of everything to say, that has to be said first. Not only is John Key’s resignation completely unexpected, it’s unprecedented and so far pretty much unexplainable.
It’s the biggest thing I can think of that has happened in Aotearoa politics without having an obvious cause (that we know about). No known significant tensions in the caucus. No real indication that his chances of getting a fourth term were any different than any other point this term. No scandals spinning out of control, no great perception of dire economic crises (despite their existence), no serious current threats for National’s polling. No nothing, really.
‘Resigning to spend more time with the family’ is a clichéd euphemism for ‘I was forced out’ or ‘I obviously couldn’t stay on’ in most situations. It’s a cop out, and it works because it symbolises that the departing knows they did wrong, they are accepting it, and from now they won’t be around to make any more mistakes so stop asking, thank you very much.
But that’s the entire explanation we have. He’s widely touted as the most popular PM ever, the National Party brand is almost exclusively built around him (“I’m a Key person” one election, “Team Key” the next), he is by most accounts the National Party’s best campaign asset by far, and he’s standing down because he’s had enough. Call it a good innings at eight years. The end of the day has finally come.
I basically just don’t believe it. And that doesn’t mean I back any particular speculation around as yet unknown reasons that might have led to the decision. It’s just, well, unbelievable.
The decision is so shocking that we have to ask some basic questions while unpacking John Key’s moves here. For starters, does he think his departure will be good for the National Party, or bad?
Bad, you would think, for the reasons stated above and across most of the comment so far. But it doesn’t sit right with me to think that John Key would intentionally harm the National Party because he was simply over it. Surely more time with Bronagh could wait maybe a year and a bit for the good of their party’s chances.
Maybe he thinks it will be good for National. Good in the long run, because refreshing the leadership at just the right time could mean their potential government next term is not as severely affected by the very rare disease of fourth-term-itis, with complications relating to a Winston Peters infection.
Or maybe he thinks his departure will be good for National before the election next year. It could be any of the number of theories about bombshells to come, his steadily decreasing popularity in the preferred PM polls, or the queues for selfies that he has reported are getting shorter each outing. But it seems so unlikely that whatever wind-down of his honeymoon period we might be finally beginning to see, his assessment would be that National would be stronger without the Key the public knows today than with him.
He’s endorsing Bill English for PM, so the move probably isn’t an act of falling on his sword early in the face of some serious government explaining to do on the near horizon. English is every bit as responsible for the state of the country as Key is.
So maybe as he says, he couldn’t bring himself to stare down the barrel of the camera and lie to us about being 100% committed to a fourth term. I find that pretty hard to believe when he’s happily lied to us plenty of times before, including arguably all year on this very issue.
Lots of maybes. One thing’s for sure – we can now stop saying “John Key will do anything to stay in power.” Turns out, he’s pretty relaxed about that, too.
What I really don’t understand is the mass congratulations he is given for going out on his own terms, quitting because he feels like it. This isn’t the same thing as Brendan McCullum and Ritchie McCaw quitting while world champions. Although I’m sure Key would love that comparison.
The move should be infuriating to the people that supported him, donated to him, volunteered for him, idolised him. Anyone who gives Key credit for anything they think is good about New Zealand should be very disappointed in him abandoning them.
The rich love what Key has done for them. He’s given them skyrocketing property values, a top bracket tax cut, new employment tools to exploit the working class with, and much more, doing it all with a goofy smile and maintaining the Middle New Zealand Vote. Their champion stood down, probably making it much easier for those parties that think inequality is actually a bad thing to take control. He did it to hang out with his wife. Why doesn’t she just come down to Wellington more, and take a few more holidays for a bit? The supporters should be livid.
Imagine Helen Clark standing down while Labour were doing well to spend more time with Peter. Different personal and political environments, but it’s the same job with the same duty and responsibilities. For Clark, such a move would have been the destruction of her reputation. Key is just so damn casual that he seems to be getting a free pass from his own supporters for deciding to head off a bit early to beat the traffic.
I hope his resignation as PM also voids his credentials as chief political and social commentator, All Blacks locker room creeper, pop music radio cringe inducer and the rest of it. Despite English sharing Key’s neoliberal agenda, at least he’s a bit more elegant about it.
Of course if 2016 has its way, we may well be living under the oppressive new regime of Prime Minister Crusher Collins next week. She hasn’t ruled out running at time of writing. If there’s anything that could make the rest of us miss Key, that would probably be it.