Despite the polls, an English win at next year's election would be an historic achievement. Which makes the choice of when to go to the country, so very important

Even with a 20 point poll lead over the main Opposition party, history is against Prime Minister designate Bill English. While he will take over the Prime Ministership with plenty of hoop-la on Monday, he will be trying to defeat history as well as Andrew Little (and Winston Peters?) to take the top job again after next year's election.

In New Zealand, prime ministers who are anointed rather than elected rarely survive the next election. No substitute PM has won the job since Peter Fraser in 1943.

All have fallen at - or even before - the first hurdle.

Shipley lost two years after her coup to take over from Jim Bolger. Both Palmer and Moore fell when they took over at the end of the Lange years. Go back further and there are Hugh Watt and Bill Rowling in the 1970s, who couldn't win after Norm Kirk's death.

Given the frequent comparisons of John Key with Keith Holyoake, perhaps the best reference point for English is Jack Marshall, who got 10 months in the top job after Holyoake stepped down. While not finance minister, he was a long-serving, hard-working rock of his party, but one who was uninspiring and paled in comparison to his hugely popular predecessor. 

But of course events only ever mimic the past; history never repeats exactly. On each of those occasions, the leader who took over was facing either an economy in the doldrums or a party in crisis. English has neither. He is in the rare position of being a substitute PM with a tail wind.

Still, fourth terms are hard. There's a reason politicians talk about 'the nine year rule' in this country and it's because voters have a habit of tossing governments out due to dysfunction, third-term-itis or a sense they are stale and have run out of ideas. Key's popularity was such that he was odds on to buck that trend, but his resignation really has thrown his party to the electoral wolves. Now, English has to decide how he plays the cards he's been dealt.

Perhaps the biggest strategic decision is when to hold next year's election. There are strong arguments both ways.

The argument in favour of sticking to a September – perhaps even November – election is largely the argument against going early. The received wisdom is that voters don't like early elections and punish governments who push them to the polls too early. But the evidence of the past century doesn't support that.

We've had three early or snap elections in New Zealand and the incumbent has won two. In 1951, National used the waterfront strike to justify going to the polls, while in 2002 Helen Clark used the collapse of the Alliance as an excuse for a July election. Both won in a landslide. Only Rob Muldoon's famous drunken snap election in 1984 led to a loss, and that government was going to be toast whenever the election was held.

Shipley went close to calling an early election in 1997, when Winston Peters walked out of our first MMP coalition, but chose to tough out the term instead with a rag-bag group of rebel MPs. It was arguably a missed opportunity, and an especially surprising one for such a bold politician.

English, however, is inherently conservative. And he's likely to be especially so, when considering an early election in the middle of winter. That's exactly the scenario that played out in that 2002 landslide when Clark was PM; and it was English who suffered the defeat, winning a humiliating 20.9 percent of the vote. Does he really want to risk another winter loss?

He also lacks a proper reason to go early. A by-election or two is part of normal parliamentary business. In the century since the 1915 election New Zealand has held, by my count, 103 by-elections. At least one a year. To have one – or even to if Maurice Williamson is leveraged in as an excuse, two – is hardly destabilising for the government. The public – even the Governor-General – might look sideways at such a justification.

It's worth noting, when Holyoake stood down, Marshall went full term, trying to rejuvenate the party in the meantime.

But there are also good arguments for English to go early. On a matter of principle, it's arguable that he should seek his own mandate to run the country. Of course we are a parliamentary democracy and he is no president; as leader of the National Party, elected by the caucus as per the party's constitution, he has every right to lead the country given National's 2014 election win. But it's hard to argue with the conclusion that that wasn't largely John Key's win. The public backed him, but do they back English?

Of course there are political reasons as well. National has a 20 point lead in the polls over Labour; even as coalition partners, the Opposition parties do not look able to change the government at this moment. English may want to exploit whatever tail wind is left from the Key years (it still feels odd writing that!) while Andrew Little's popularity still pales in comparison.

Why give Little the chance to reframe himself as an alternative to English? Why not make hay while people still have him in their mind as an alternative to Key? Why let the image of Boring Bill or Bitter Bill take hold in the public imagination? Why not make the most of the good books English can say he, himself, has delivered? Why not make the most of any honeymoon the man from Dipton may enjoy? Because as a same-old, same-old politician with 27 years in parliament behind him and no real work experience outside the beltway (bar a short time on the farm), he's not likely to enjoy much.

Remember the fuss around Phil Goff being a 30 year veteran when he took over and the assumption that he was in no position to rejuvenate the party or be the face of change? He may think it's better to attempt a quick-ish win before voters wake up to the implications of no John Key.

And don't forget the internal issues within his own party. I wrote earlier this week that a pivotal part of Key's success was his ability to rein in the factions inside National. But now, even as candidates have stood aside for English, there are several senior people within the party who have a very good reason to wish that English loses next year, retires and opens the door for a proper leadership contest and new direction in opposition.

Whatever he chooses, English won't have it easy, with the weight of history pushing against him. But at least now, at long last, it's his choice to make.


Comments (10)

by Andrew Geddis on December 10, 2016
Andrew Geddis

The public – even the Governor-General – might look sideways at such a justification.

If this is meant to suggest that the Governor-General could maybe say "no" to an early election if she thinks there isn't a good enough reason for holding one, I protest. I protest most vehemently.

Provided English still has the support of the House, the Governor-General has no independent role whatsoever here. She may privately think the decision is foolish/unjustified, but she'll just do whatever the PM advises without demur.

I posted on the issue here, for those interested.

by Dennis Horne on December 10, 2016
Dennis Horne

What's the earliest Mr English could reasonably call a general election?

by Dennis Horne on December 11, 2016
Dennis Horne

Bill English's problem is he probably wants to do what's right, what needs to be done. That sort of thing.  Never popular with the voters;  remember (Heinrich) Arnold Nordmeyer.

Key's followers wanted money out of thin air. With house price inflation they got it. So they think.

When the debt hits the doorbell, poor old Bill will wish he was some place else.

by Alan Johnstone on December 11, 2016
Alan Johnstone

In his position, I'd reshuffle Tuesday / Wednesday, firing Smith and Brownlee as a minimum before spending the holiday doing a quick redraft of the manifesto ,

Assuming no disasters over the holiday period,  I'd announce the election Waitangi weekend with a polling date of 18th March.

I think there is an organizational and financial advantage that will be narrower in 10 months time.There is nothing to be gained by giving Labour a year to fund raise or Shane Jones time to embed himself into New Zealand First.

Gordon Brown bottled an early election after taking over from Tony Blair; he could have won but lost his nerve. This is an example for English to keep in mind.

If he goes early I think he wins, but I expect he'll hang on and be defeated.


by Nick Gibbs on December 11, 2016
Nick Gibbs

He should wait. No one I know of has asked for an early election - not one. Its not even a topic of conversation. Bill English is seen as a continuation of the team that won in 2014. So no one is calling for an election. The only reason to go early would be for electoral advantage  and the punters won't like it. English would win in January but with a reduced majority, Labour would then have more MP's a real shot at 2020.

by Tim Watkin on December 11, 2016
Tim Watkin

Dennis, I don't like to be too cynical, but it's interesting what you say about house prices. If they do start to flatten and interest rates start to rise, one of the key planks of this government 's popularity may start to erode. Certainly if Auckland prices have plateaued for a while and immigration is falling off, It'll be interesting to see how the polls react. 

by Tim Watkin on December 11, 2016
Tim Watkin

Andrew, I did know that. At least I thought that. I couldnt resist being mischievous, but I shouldn't have been misleading. Thanks for the correction.

Alan, those a good arguments. The Shane Jones one is a good poInt! He doesn't want to be another Shipley. Remember he was there when that played out and missed her chance. But as Nick says, no one i calling for it, it would look very very political.

Actually, Little may regret calling for an election if English does go, as it makes it hard for him to kick into Engli  for opportunism!

by Graeme Edgeler on December 12, 2016
Graeme Edgeler

Even with a 20 point poll lead over the main Opposition party, history is against Prime Minister designate Bill English.

How does this work? Is there a previous Prime Minister who was handed the reins mid-term who has taken over a governing party with a 20-point lead over the main opposition party?

Why is it that history says it's the third-term-ism or the hand-over-to-new-leader-ism that is important, and not the 20 point lead that governs historical analogues? How do the words "even with a 20 point lead" get added to this sentence? Has this happened before?

by Ross on December 12, 2016

<em>Little may regret calling for an election if English does go</em>

Little has called for an early election to avoid a by-election in Mt Albert. We've had two by-elections in the last two years at a cost of about $1 million each. Seems sensible to me.

"So I think I'd probably rather avoid a byelection and just get straight into an earlier election."

by Tim Watkin on December 12, 2016
Tim Watkin

Graeme, let me introduce you to the comma. It can be used to say 'on one hand, then on another'. So the sentence means 'here's one thing that's true and gives a certain context, and then on the other hand this other thing is true too'.

The history speaks for itself. 

Ross, do you think Little cares more about his party's chances at the next election than the cost of a by-election? He's made the call for strategic reasons, not to save a million dollars. As I wrote, two in the past year isn't that unusual. And all I'm saying is that the strategy may backfire.

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