|John Key (Getty Images)|
Yet for Key's electoral success there isn't much that screams 'legacy' about his time in office – nothing like Reagan, Thatcher, Kohl, or even Blair. His Labour predecessor Helen Clark created the KiwiSaver compulsory superannuation scheme, and renationalised New Zealand's railways. Key's triumph has been playing the hand fate dealt exceptionally well. He's delivered stable, business-friendly government against a backdrop of the global credit crunch, and ran deficits to shield New Zealand, a country heavily reliant on international trade, from the worst of the economic slowdown. There's been massive investment in transport infrastructure, welfare has been reformed, and the hard work of getting Christchurch back on its feet after the 2011 earthquake is underway – imagine demolishing the bulk of Central London and you get a sense of the task's enormity.
Key's goofy moments – memorably pulling a waitress's pony tail – sent the Left into meltdown, but my gut feeling is his 'embarrassing uncle' antics quietly endeared him to the majority of New Zealanders. He's the son of a single mother who grew up in a council flat, married his childhood sweetheart and became a self-made millionaire, yet enjoys popularity comparable to pre-Brexit Boris.
So why step down when he's on top, with another term beckoning? Key (who turned 55 in August) said he had 'left nothing in the tank'; he's a workaholic, not a chillaxer, and three decades of punishing work hours as one of Merrill Lynch's top currency traders and at the top of politics are enough. He's served his country, he's estimated to be worth £30 million – and wants to spend time with the family he's clearly devoted to, judging by the social media insights care of his now celebrity children. He says his decision to step down was made in September, and as his helicopter swooped over the shattered roads and railway tracks on his way to visit communities hit by last month's 7.8 earthquake I wouldn't blame him if he quietly felt relieved knowing someone else was going to shoulder responsibility for the rebuild.
The big shake almost certainly delayed his resignation announcement until today. New Zealand's three year parliamentary terms means resigning before Christmas gives his successor a clear run into the General Election. Key said he'd 'taken the knife to myself to allow others to come through', but the 19 (out of 60) National MPs elected by the list will need refreshing too – a messy job more easily accomplished by a new leader. There will be some nervous members in the party's caucus, keenly trying to ensure they back the right horse in next week's leadership ballot.
And for all the sense that New Zealand is doing well, with the government back to running a surplus, there remain some big challenges that Key has avoided tackling. Auckland's dysfunctional housing market is beginning to make London look like good value. The pension age remains unsustainably low at 65. Immigration levels are increasingly worrying some of the National Party's base. And while Key's government signed free-trade deals with Malaysia, Taiwan and Hong Kong, years of work into the Trans-Pacific Partnership went up in flames during the US election campaign – so salvaging something out of the wreckage will be a priority for the next Prime Minister.
The collapse of the TPP ranks second to Key's biggest regret – failing to persuade New Zealanders to ditch our Union Jack-based flag in a $22 million, two referenda consultation. But in the scheme of things it's hardly an illegal invasion of Iraq, or making the wrong call in a Brexit referendum. Not a bad disappointment to have after eight years at the top.
First published by Coffee House on December 5th, 2016