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English now needs to explain what he is?really about

Opinion Piece

In setting September 23 for the general election, Prime Minister Bill English has entered what will be the defining part of his 26-year political career and kicked off a contest that is going to be much closer than it might have seemed only two months ago.

English, a man of considerable intelligence, has preferred a backroom role being the “other half” to the more outgoing John Key. He has the Southlander’s inherent reluctance to indulge in self-promotion.

He now has to lift his profile and explain to the electorate what he is really about, starting with today’s state of the nation speech.

All the main players are more than ready for the campaign, and perhaps the only thing they agree on is that it will be close.

National is seeking to win a fourth consecutive term, something that has only been done twice since the 1930s — by Labour in the ’30s and ’40s, and National in the ’60s.

English will be focusing on the economy and stable government, which may be fertile ground in a country that tends to be middle of the road. One card he will be tempted to play is using the surplus he has painfully built up over a number of years for tax cuts or a household income package, which he has hinted at doing.

Labour will seek to attack and discredit the new prime minister while focusing on income inequality, house prices and immigration. Its goal will be to show National is moribund and out of fresh ideas, banking on the old principle that governments are voted out not in.

And of course Winston Peters is in the strongest position he has been in for many years, with a good chance of deciding who will govern after the election. Both English and Andrew Little have reluctantly acknowledged this, while secretly hoping it won’t happen.

For the general public Key’s absence has made the election much more interesting. The next seven-and-a-half months, with their inevitable highs and lows, will be fascinating and possibly even exciting.