Former Prime Minister Jim Bolger always believed that Bill English would be Prime Minister.
So he sent him a text yesterday saying: “I’ve always seen you as my heir apparent, it’s taken you a long time to get there.”
“He replied appropriately,” Bolger told POLITIK.
“I always thought he had the intellectual and moral values that could lead not only the National Party, but lead New Zealand. in a very successful fashion.”
And what Bolger particularly likes about English is his “compassionate conservatism” which he believes comes, like him, from his provincial New Zealand background and their shared Catholic faith.
As if to answer that, English promised yesterday to ensure that the benefits of economic growth were widely shared.
“We will also focus on better incomes for our households, safer communities and smarter Government support for the most vulnerable,” he said.
And in what is already a controversial statement in his remarks yesterday he said: “I believe that by supporting families, businesses, volunteers, iwi, unions and churches, government can do a better job of changing people’s lives.”
Right-wing critics have asked why he included unions in that list.
But it looks like a reference to his social investment programmes which seek to involve a range of non-governmental organisations in their implementation.
English has also refused to repeat the promise of John Key to resign if any move was made to increase the age of eligibility for national superannuation.
“I am not making the same pledge as the previous Prime Minister,” he said.
“That was a product of its time when there was a need to establish trust.
“I think now we have built credibility as a government that will support those who are dependent on the government for income.
“We won’t put them in a worse position.
“We will work to put them in a better position.”
English first came into Parliament in 1990 just after Bolger had won the election.
Along with Nick Smith, Roger Sowry and Tony Ryall he was part of a group of young, first-time MPs called the “brat pack”.
It was clear right from the beginning that though English did not rebel like some of his caucus colleagues, he was (like Bolger) uncomfortable e with Ruth Richardson’s “Mother of All Budgets” in 1990 which cut welfare payments.
It was a political disaster for National and Bolger sacked her after the 1993 election.
English often says that he learned what not do in politics during the 1990s.
Bolger believes that English’s main characteristic is his values.
“His concern for other people, and that comes through from his upbringing, but also his own lovely family,” said Bolger.
He said at the heart of what English is about is the fact that he has “good family values.”
“I think that is very important because one of the challenges, much wider than the economy, is how do we address the issue of rising inequality in New Zealand.
“We see what it has done around the world.
“it has produced Trump in America.
“It has produced Brexit in the UK.
“it has produced right wing ideologues in many countries of Europe, so I am sure that the Bill English I know is very aware of what’s happening there and will want his policies to address those issues.
“Communities and families are the keys to improving the lives of all New Zealanders.”
Bolger says English is not of the ideological right “who can only see things in straight lines.”
Instead, he has the comp[assionate conservatism of provincial New Zealand “who have to live with the vagaries of everything.”
English now has not only got the challenge of subtly tweaking National’s policies, so they do deliver to the rising inequality that Bolger talks about, but also satisfy the strong demands from National’s back bench for a more inclusive culture inside the National caucus.
English said working on this would be a particular responsibility of hisd deputy, Paula Bennett.
“There’s an opportunity now to clear the decks somewhat and to get focussed on the path we want to take to election year,” he said.
“Of necessity that requires the caucus to be involved.”
But though he said he would not be enlarging either Cabinet or the broader executive he was giving little away about his Cabinet reshuffle.
What few crumbs that have dropped from the Beehive seem to be beginning to suggest is that it will be a relatively low-key event rather than the broad refresh wanted by some of last week’s insurrectionists.
There was one important clue yesterday with Foreign Minister Murray McCully announcing that he would head to New York today for a final session of the Security Council which New Zealand vacates at the end of the month.
POLITIK understands there were contingency plans within MFAT if he was unable to go because he was being replaced as Minister. Obviously, those plans are not being implemented which suggests he is staying on.
POLITIK also understands that the two members of the Speaker’s team — Lindsey Tisch and Chester Borrows — are likely to stay in their jobs even though both are retiring at the next election.
What did seem more evident yesterday was that English might be planning slightly more in terms of policy change and slightly less in terms of personnel than he was originally thought likely to do.