Cracker by Damian Christie

Enemy at the Gates

I don’t know whether it’s keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of overwhelming adversity, or just plain old head-in-the-sand determination. But when the rebels are banging on the doors, everything around you is in ruins and all signs are that your reign is at an end, wouldn’t you think it might be time just to go?

It’s hard to say what it is that keeps Bill English keepin’ on. It could be something they put in the water down there in the Mainland; perhaps he actually thinks he’s making a difference – maybe it’s the love of a good woman.

One thing is becoming increasingly clear to everyone else however: Bill English’s days as Leader of the Opposition are numbered. OK, so the recent media kafuffle is probably going to amount to nothing, once again it was a slow day in the Press Gallery (and with all eyes on Iraq, when isn’t it a slow day these days), a bored Mark Sainsbury/Jane Young/Barry Soper thought ‘why don’t we revive that old leadership challenge story we’ve been using ever since the election, only this time we’ll put a date on it’. Everyone knows it’s going to happen, and any half-educated guess as to when the inevitable will take place makes it instantly newsworthy.

From the blue corner, out comes Bill English. Ambushed by the 4th Estate Ranger Batallion he thinks of an appropriate response to the rumours. “You must be forgetting what day it is today”, he drawls. It’s a safe bet, after all, the Beehive is a disorienting place at the best of times, with its identical, circular, windowless floors, no clocks on the wall, and half-price drinks at Bellamy’s. Yes, the day was April 1st. But, when you’re rating as low as Bill is, you just have to wonder who really is the April Fool.

It’s not hard to spot what the problem with English’s leadership is. The first time I interviewed English was shortly before the ’02 election. I was quietly impressed with his affable nature and his down-home charm. He had some charisma, albeit in a quiet sort of way.

After that election, and National’s humiliating defeat, which in fairness didn’t have a lot to do with English, I’ve spoken to Bill almost once a month on a variety of issues. Last week I told my producer not to bother calling him again. There’s no point.

National and English soared through the second half of last year like an eagle whose wings have been gaffer-taped together (try it, it’s more fun than shooting kittens in a barrel!) This year, Bill attempted to revive things with his “two standards of citizenship/those bloody mowww-ries” speech. Regardless of the pros or cons of the politics, at least it seemed for a second like he had something to say. We called him up.

(paraphrased for your pleasure)

ME: “So Bill, what are you going to do about the bloody Mowwww-ries?”

BILL: “Well, we’re considering formulating some policies to deal with that issue.”

ME: “Do you think we should get rid of the Maori seats in Parliament?”

BILL: “Well, it’s something we need to have an open discussion about as a nation.”

ME: “You don’t actually have any policies at all, do you?”

BILL: “It’s something we’re looking at.”

ME: “OK, yes or no, should we allow nuclear ships in our harbours?”

BILL: “I’m not going to be forced into a position just because you want me to, but it is something that, as a nation, we need to have an open discussion about….”

People don’t vote for rigorous debate, they don’t vote for committees, sub-committees, referenda, open discussions. They vote for policies, ideas, philosophies, personalities – all of which the National Party circa 2003 is sadly lacking.

Dire times indeed for the National Party. As Helen Clark noted yesterday, mirroring my own thoughts on the matter, “Really does anyone care? Nobody sees them as a viable Government.” Horse. Gate. Bolted. Closing. Add your favourite joining words.

So yes, a challenge will come. Thursday, or sometime in mid August, who knows for certain. Whether it’s Don Brash, who will surely disenfranchise whatever’s left of National’s mainstream supporters; or Gerry Brownlee, who’s… well he’s Gerry Brownlee; does it make any difference?

It’s no choice at all really, and while English is no better, at least he has the advantage of being the incumbent – as long as there’s no challenge mounted, English will just keep on keepin’ on.