What's next for New Zealand's Former Prime Minister?

13 Nov 2017


The last month has been a juxtaposition of epic proportions for New Zealand's vanquished former Prime Minister Bill English. Having won 44.5% of the vote and 56 out 120 seats (with 61 needed for a majority) on September the 23rd, Mr English's National Party were by far the single largest party, besting the resurgent Labour led by new Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern by 10 seats. And yet they now find themselves consigned to opposition.


This is because Ardern's Labour were able to form a coalition Government with New Zealand First, with a confidence and supply arrangement with the Green Party, giving the new Government 63 seats. The negotiations to form a Government were extremely tight, but in the end New Zealand First leader, and now Deputy Prime Minister, Winston Peters, opted to go with Labour, criticising capitalism for not working for people in the process.


The big question now is, having snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, what happens to Bill English? Will his Party let him fight on as leader of the opposition, or will they ask him to move along? It seems a simple enough question, but there are numerous elements at play here. Now, I appreciate you may not be interested in what's happening to a leader you've never heard of on the other side of the world, but stay with me because this is quite fascinating.


The most problematic factor for Mr English is the fact that this isn’t the first time he's failed to win an election. For the sake of argument, since National won the most seats and votes but are in opposition, we have to define winning an election as forming a Government – though even then the definition's not that simple.


In Britain, under First Past the Post, winning an election is a party controlling an outright majority of the seats in the House of Commons. A party may still form a Government as a coalition, but under First Past the Post, this isn't really a win since the system is designed for majorities. New Zealand uses a system called Mixed Member Proportional (a system explained here by CGP Grey) so, to form a Government, they simply have to be able to form a majority coalition. Under that definition, National lost the 2017 election.


Mr English has been leader of National before, back in the early noughties. Following a not-too-bad defeat to Labour in 1999, Bill English became National's leader and leader of the opposition in 2001 and the next year led the National Party to their worst ever election result, before or since. He disappeared in to the wilderness for a time and later proved a loyal and capable deputy and finance minister to his popular predecessor John Key, making him the obvious successor.


That is awkward context for English – having already used up and failed on his second chance.




Things get worse for Bill English. During the campaign he attacked New Zealand First and Winston Peters, insisting that they would not be the kingmakers, and that National could govern alone. He also launched a campaign ad that suggested a Labour-New Zealand First-Green coalition deal would be chaotic (remind you of anyone, Mrs May?). Bearing in mind to govern in MMP you need partners to go into coalition with, Mr English's attacks were ill-judged. Burning bridges with the people who will decide your future is not a good strategy.


As if that's not bad enough, a series of dodgy, to say the least, claims about Labour's tax policies destroyed the credibility he'd rebuilt over his years with the finance portfolio – already tested by tax rises that during the 2014 election National promised wouldn't happen – after his catastrophic defeat in 2002.


National, since losing power last week, have been full of bluster about being the strongest opposition ever. In truth, it can only go downhill. An objective reappraisal of National's nine years in office is now being performed, and its results are damning. National's attacks over Labour's tax policies may also come back to haunt them now Ardern's party is in office. If Prime Minister Ardern can prove that Labour has no plans for secret tax increases, and proves Labour can be trusted over the next 3 years, then they can only move up.


It's worth remembering that at the start of the campaign the party was languishing on 24% of the vote under former leader Andrew Little, before shooting up to 33% (with some polls putting them at 40% before National began attacking them over tax). Jacinda-mania, as it was called, gripped the nation for weeks. She is a fresh, dynamic, and popular leader, and the main barriers to the party's being the single biggest party was doubts about their readiness and fitness for Government. They now have the chance to prove they can be trusted.


Taking all that in to account, it's time to answer the question, what is next for Bill English? I find it extremely unlikely that he'll be heading back to the Beehive (the offices of the executive of New Zealand's Government). There are too many factors, too many missteps, too much troubled water under the bridge. Might he lead National into the next election? Potentially, but again, it might be too risky.


Any political party wants power, and Bill English has repeatedly proven he is incapable of getting it. He took National to their worst ever defeat in 2002 and brought to an end 9 years of National party Government this year. Will they give him a third chance? With a track record like that and the multitude of issues facing him, it's not likely.


I told you it was fascinating.

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