Comment

Setbacks derail National’s election plan

Thirteen weeks out from polling day, a supposedly trustworthy Bill English has had trust in him eroded. This wasn't part of the plan, writes Ric Stevens

Three months out from the ballot and National’s game plan for re-election is becoming ever clearer. But they did not count on the two setbacks in the last week - one small and one very large indeed - which have put them off their stride.

The first was Disability Issues Minister Nicky Wagner’s ill-considered tweet that she would rather be out on Waitemata Harbour than knuckling down to meetings with disability advocates in Auckland.

The second was the end of up-and-coming MP’s Todd Barclay’s political career, brought about following a Newsroom investigation. This is a much more serious matter, because it drags the name of Prime Minister Bill English into the mud, and National strategy is largely based around English as a dependable asset.

Let’s get Wagner out of the way first. Her tweet was foolish, and obviously sounded more offensive than she could possibly have intended it to be.

Her problem was trying to do too many things at once. The first was what has become known as virtue signalling – “I’m busy in disability meetings today”. The second was trying to portray herself as being just like all the other people stuck inside their workplaces – “It’s a lovely day on the harbour and I would rather be boating” (the words are paraphrased).

Put the two together and she comes across as uncaring and arrogant – things that the National Party don’t want to be in the face of the electorate. The storming over-reaction on Twitter and the news website comment sections last weekend were entirely predictable.

Where Wagner really went wrong, and the bit that calls her judgment into question, is trying to pretend later that she meant something else, when she didn’t, and then making a half-baked apology – for “any offence caused”, rather than for the silly words themselves.

But Wagner’s indiscretion was not a game-changer. The Barclay scandal, which could continue to play out for weeks, has more serious consequences because it reflects badly on English personally.

National’s re-election strategy is based on having a reassuring bloke at the helm (the choice of the gender-specific “bloke” in that sentence is deliberate). It was a factor that helped them win three elections under John Key, and the plan with English was to do more of the same.

While English may not have the man-of-the-people touch that Key had, he is portrayed as being a solid, small-town farming type, and a family man.

Online videos of him making the kids a Kiwi classic spaghetti-and-pineapple pizza, or jogging around Wellington hills, are aimed at softening his edges in the public mind, but they are not the whole package. What counts is that he is considered honest and dependable.

That is why headlines like Newsroom's PM Bill English accused of cover-up over Barclay are a National strategist’s nightmare. English now has to counter the suggestion that he misled the public, and turned a blind eye to Barclay’s possibly criminal activity in illicitly recording a disgruntled staffer.

The use of the words “hush money” to describe payments from a prime ministerial fund to compensate that staffer makes things worse.

It is not going according to plan. National’s strategy was supposed to be running on rails by now.

Here’s how it was supposed to play out.

First, Key moved out of the way to give English a clear run. Key felt he had done enough in the top job, and the inevitable doubts about his willingness to continue clouded his party’s future. He removed himself early enough to let English have a decent tilt.

It also allowed time for the electorate to get used to English in charge. The central message was to be similar to Theresa’s May’s chant of “strong and stable leadership” in the British election, except that English can be convincing in that role, and May wasn’t.

The next tactic was to present a budget that made hundreds of thousands of traditional Labour voters better off – but only in April next year, after National has been re-elected.

Another crucial part of the plan can be summed up as “Do Nothing Stupid”.

Despite the jibe that they only think of their “rich mates”, National’s ability to govern is based not only on their traditional farming and middle New Zealand support base, but also on progressively-minded people who  want their families to be economically secure and have misgivings about the parties of the Left's capabilities to ensure that.

These are the “shy Tories” who sometimes confound the opinion pollsters. Phone them up and ask them how they will vote, and they will express sympathy for a party of the Left. Get them in the privacy of the polling booth, and it might be a different story.

For these people, voting involves a lot of trust. They might not agree with all of National’s policies, but they trust the Nats’ ability to look after their economic future. Looking untrustworthy is therefore something a National leader cannot afford.

A junior National MP just did something stupid. A whole series of things actually. And it now looks like, at the very least, the supposedly dependable Bill English also did something stupid by not dealing with it long before now.

Trust eroded. That is not what things were supposed to look like, 13 weeks out from polling day.

Read more: Politicians, the police and the payout
The timeline of events leading to Newsroom's investigation

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