MPs kept in dark over English exit
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.
Bill English resigns as National Party leader, quits politics. His wife Mary and two of his sons stand by his side.