MPs kept in dark over English exit

Nelson Mail - - NEWS - STACEY KIRK

The only mo­ment Bill English took pause to steady him­self, as he re­signed from a 27-year po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, was when he re­flected on the toll on his fam­ily.

The Na­tional Party leader an­nounced his re­tire­ment from pol­i­tics yes­ter­day in sud­den fash­ion, though not nec­es­sar­ily sur­pris­ing.

Af­ter a ca­reer in which he took Na­tional to dev­as­tat­ing lows, led the party from the high­est of­fice in the land and spent eight years as one of New Zealand’s most pop­u­lar fi­nance min­is­ters, he said he would be purs­ing more per­sonal and busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties, but he was also look­ing for­ward to more time in Dip­ton.

Flanked by his fam­ily and a num­ber of se­nior MPs from the con­ser­va­tive side of the party, English an­nounced his de­par­ture – a short two-week no­tice pe­riod to re­tire from pol­i­tics on Fe­bru­ary 27.

His de­par­ture is set to spark a lead­er­ship runoff, how­ever the party would need to decide on the process first. Bat­ting away spec­u­la­tion for the past two weeks, English ad­mit­ted he had been thinking about it while spend­ing time with his fam­ily over the sum­mer break.

He was forced to steel him­self dur­ing a press con­fer­ence, when talk­ing about how his fam­ily had sup­ported him through nearly three decades in pol­i­tics.

‘‘Your strength and tol­er­ance has en­abled my ca­reer, now I look for­ward to our time to­gether,’’ he said, chok­ing back tears.

His wife Mary, and three of his six chil­dren – Xavier, Rory and Bart – were stand­ing be­hind him.

He had re­turned to his fam­ily home in Dip­ton over the sum­mer break, and while English has lived in Welling­ton for a num­ber of years the for­mer Clutha-South­land MP has long con­sid­ered the small South­land town that con­tains the fam­ily farm, home.

His de­ci­sion to re­sign was a per­sonal one, he said. While English would not elab­o­rate on fu­ture plans, he said he would be look­ing to pur­sue ‘‘a num­ber of per­sonal and busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties’’.

He de­scribed his year-long ten­ure as prime min­is­ter the ca­reer high­light, as he thanked the rest of his party.

‘‘I’ve been lucky to be able to come to work ev­ery day with a sense of mis­sion, but also to work with peo­ple who share that sense of mis­sion.’’

His eight years as fi­nance min­is­ter un­der for­mer Prime Min­is­ter John Key was a close sec­ond.

Stew­ard­ing New Zealand through the Global Fi­nan­cial Cri­sis, English is likely to be thought of as one of New Zealand’s most com­pe­tent fi­nance min­is­ters.

While he did not talk about the lows, lead­ing the party to its low­est ever polling re­sult in 2002 was likely un­sur­passed. English also shied away from talk­ing about his ‘‘legacy’’.

‘‘I’m not a great be­liever in lega­cies – you have to be sat­is­fied with what you do and your ac­tions in pol­i­tics, on be­half of the peo­ple in New Zealand that you care about,’’ said English.

He said it was im­por­tant the Gov­ern­ment man­aged the econ­omy well, and he hoped it would pick up his so­cial in­vest­ment pro­gramme – not be­cause it’s a legacy, but ‘‘be­cause it could change the lives of a great many peo­ple’’.

While he doggedly re­fused to en­ter­tain his im­pend­ing re­tire­ment in pub­lic, English ad­mit­ted he had in­formed his deputy Paula Ben­nett and num­ber three Steven Joyce of his de­ci­sion more than a week ago.

How­ever, the cau­cus was kept in the dark over the course of their two-day strat­egy ses­sion in Tau­ranga last week and was only in­formed yes­ter­day.

He said his res­ig­na­tion now, two and a half years out from the 2020 elec­tion, would al­low a new leader to set out their own di­rec­tion.

English said he did not have a pre­ferred can­di­date to take over as Op­po­si­tion leader and re­jected sug­ges­tions he was step­ping down be­cause he did not think he could beat Prime Min­is­ter Jacinda Ardern at the next elec­tion.

‘‘It’s been a huge priv­i­lege to lead the party and serve in pol­i­tics since I was first elected to Par­lia­ment just over 27 years ago.’’

English said he was proud of the work he had done in the health and fi­nance sec­tor, and par­tic­u­larly the work he had done on the so­cial in­vest­ment ap­proach.

Re­flect­ing on what has changed in the al­most three decades he’s been in Par­lia­ment, English said the ‘‘speed of the news cy­cle’’ was an ob­vi­ous one.

He also said there was a ‘‘higher ex­pec­ta­tion around dis­ci­pline and ad­he­sion’’ in the party cau­cus and there were many new ways of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the pub­lic, which meant MPs weren’t bound to news­pa­per ed­i­tors like they used to be.

Ben­nett told me­dia on be­half of the cau­cus that English had huge mana and had led the party ‘‘in­cred­i­bly well’’.

‘‘We’re go­ing to miss him a lot. I don’t think New Zealand will ever ap­pre­ci­ate the depth of his thinking.’’

Ben­nett, who was un­der fire fol­low­ing a leak within the party sug­gest­ing the cau­cus was not happy with her lead­er­ship, would not answer ques­tions about whether she would run to re­place English.

PHOTO: MONIQUE FORD/ STUFF

Bill English re­signs as Na­tional Party leader, quits pol­i­tics. His wife Mary and two of his sons stand by his side.

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