Key said that he didn’t have it in him anymore, and he didn’t want to deceive New Zealanders about that by running again and leaving six months later (assuming they win, of course). He also spoke of the strain it placed on his family, which after eight years as prime minister, following two as Leader of the Opposition, and a total of fourteen in Parliament, would have been considerable.
And yet, most New Zealanders were left wondering, why NOW?! There’s been a lot of speculation, and a few conspiracy theories, but unless there’s some evidence, we need to take him at his word: It was time to go.
One of the reasons for the speculation is that Key has been riding high in the polls for years, always leading the polls as “preferred prime minister”. However, the trend as has been downward for years, and he’s now below where he was when he became prime minister in 2008. At the same time, the National Party itself continues to poll strongly, usually beating both Labour and their Green Party allies. So, Key's fortunes may be slipping, but his party is doing well.
Add to that the fact that the TPPA he championed is dead with the election of Don in the USA, and the fact he probably couldn’t face having to deal with Don, his defeat in the flag change referendum, which became a referendum on him and his leadership, and then a crushing defeat on Saturday in the Mt. Roskill byelection that late last week the media said was “too close to call”. Add it all up, and Key may have seen the writing on the wall and decided to go now, rather than losing next year. This way, he leaves on his terms, and as a winner.
I’ve never been a fan of Key, and I’ve never voted for National or any of its electorate candidates. In fact, I’ve campaigned for several Labour Party electorate candidates. However, for most of us, it was never personal: Opposition was never about Key the man, but rather Key the leader of a party with which we disagreed. I wish him well.
Key was unique among New Zealand party leaders in that he ran US presidential-like campaigns that placed him squarely at the centre of their marketing and branding. In our parliamentary system, the prime minister is “first among equals”, which is out of sync with Key’s style. I doubt we’ll see another party leader like him any time soon, which is a good thing, in my opinion: Best get back to New Zealand politics, New Zealand style.
On Monday, the National Party Caucus in Parliament will meet to select a new Leader, who will then become Prime Minister. Odds-on favourite is Deputy Leader (and Deputy Prime Minister) Bill English, who in 2002 led the party to its worst-ever electoral defeat. That was then, this is now, and the best thing National has going for it is MOTS: More Of The Same. Bill English is definitely the MOTS choice for them.
The other parties are unlikely to change their leadership, and if any do it would have to be by early January or not at all. I don’t expect that to happen.
So, right now, the most likely match-up will be between Bill English leading National and Andrew Little leading Labour, which some pundits are already calling “the battle of the grey men”. But that’s a topic for another day.
Right now, the important thing is that John Key has resigned, and that changes everything for the election next year. We may even see a change in government.
As of now, anything’s possible.
The official press release on John Key’s resignation
“John Key's shock resignation speech” – New Zealand Herald (complete text)
AmeriNZ Podcast 324 - Shock Resignation – A brief podcast episode I recorded about all this.