In February last year I interviewed Bill English and he was emphatic. Here’s our exchange:
JG: If and when he retires John Key will leave a gaping hole in the National Party. He has been an incredibly popular and competent prime minister. Any chance you will step up?
JG: Zero chance?
BE: Well I’ve always said I wouldn’t go for the leadership of the National Party again
JG: Things change in politics.
BE: Yeah, well that hasn’t changed.
By December he was leading the National Party and of course Prime Minister.
In June last year I interviewed Jacinda Ardern and she was equally dismissive:
JG: You have been touted as a future leader, but what I’m hearing [today is] you don’t want to be.
JA: No, no, no… I have always been consistent, because it is not just what you give up, you know yourself and what will be good for you
JG: Is it literally inconceivable that one day you could be leader of the Labour party?
JA: If I get to choose, yes.
This week she became the leader of the Labour Party.
Denials of political ambition are common place in politics, of course, but I was convinced what they were telling me was true. Jacinda’s caveat ‘If I get to choose’ may be pertinent here, having the leadership rather thrust upon her, but the reason I believed them both was the very personal stories that came with each of their denials.
English spoke about the personal difficulties he experienced when he had previously led the National Party and steered them toward the worst defeat in their history; a 21 percent showing in the 2002 election whereby he was rolled as leader.
The experience hit English hard. ‘Yeah, it’s not so much the events themselves but the public nature of them. It’s a pretty public failing’. He mentioned his kids in the same breath, suggesting that he had spent years telling them that when they are knocked down they had to get back up. He took his own advice and got on with things – becoming a highly respected Finance Minister.
For Jacinda, it was a work life balance that mattered. She wanted a life outside of politics, she didn’t want the constant media scrutiny, and she wanted to have kids. To her mind, she could have the life she wanted as an MP but not as the leader of the Labour party and certainly not as prime minister.
The question of kids has plagued Jacinda, and many have rightly pointed out the question would not be aimed at men, but she herself saw this as a factor last year. And how she tackles the issue – if ever it comes to pass – may prove to be a defining not just for her, but for women generally.
But what struck me about both of their responses was just how human they were. there was an openness and honesty in both that would appeal to the public, and in the next seven weeks that’s exactly what they will be seeking to do.
With Labour in such terrible shape in the polls, Jacinda has in many ways little to lose, and in all likelihood the election will come before her honeymoon period is over. Although, becoming leader in the harsh spotlight on an election campaign is as testing a start as any, and it will exploit whatever weaknesses she may have. If a commanding performance in her opening Press Conference is anything to go by, however, this challenge may prove to be the making of her. Time will tell.
Without question English is in the box seat. His party is streaks ahead in the polls and his personal popularity is high. The economy is in great shape, and despite some big issues such as housing his greatest challenge may now be a comparison to his opposite. Standing next to Jacinda, there is a very real risk English will look particularly old school both physically and in substance. And the prospect, however remote, of another dramatic loss will almost certainly make him shiver.
The policy platforms of both parties ought provide the greatest impetus to prospective voters, but invariably much falls on the leaders and how they perform. Nowhere will be this truer than over the next seven weeks.
Let the battle of the reluctant leaders begin. For those people who enjoy watching politics, this match-up could scarcely be more intriguing.