Steven Joyce and the turning of the tide

Of course there was nothing else for it. Steven Joyce was never going to sit there and fade into insignificance. So now National begins its true test, and it could signal a realignment on the right of New Zealand politics

Key was a surprise, but a lone act. McCully was predictable, even inevitable. As was English, after he'd had a tilt and failed (again). So it's Joyce's resignation that feels like a turning of the tide, a passing of the baton. It's now clear that Key's kitchen cabinet, the true deciders of the previous National era, are gone once and for all and National's rebuilding phase is set to begin in earnest.

Steven Joyce, before he resigned from politics today, had one of the luckiest political careers imaginable. He marks his start date in politics as 2003, when National brought him in as campaign manager after its disastrous, almost fatal, 2002 campaign. But his parliamentary career began in 2008 and it was impeccably timed. He became Minister of Transport and Communications that year and worked his way up, as his nickname confirms, to be the Minister of Everything.

Through it all he also displayed a clearer eye for what middle New Zealand wanted and valued than just about anyone, reading the polls with acuity. He got close in 2005, won three and then marked his card with losses in Northland in 2015 and at last year's general election. At both, Winston Peters was his bogeyman. Northland was a major SNAFU and his bridges promise a terrible misjudgement. One one hand last year's election was a bid to break the nine year rule and no-one canbe surprised he wasn't able to do it, but his desperate $11.7b hole ploy will be remembered for its dishonesty and cyncism. National supporters may think he rolled the dice and took one for the team, but more fair-minded voters should be less forgiving.

Still, an almost ten year career in which he was only not a minister for a matter of months? That's gold. Many brilliant MPs would crawl over hot coals for such a career. Who could wish for anything more?

Well, of course, there's the leadership of his party. Joyce clearly wished for that, but ran against, and lost to, Simon Bridges. So demotion awaited. A slow fading from the heart of power to the frustration of the wings. He had peaked and his mates were gone.

His critics on the right will say he ran his ministries like a fiefdom and spent taxpayer money and picked winners willy-nilly. (Which should be enough to make those on the left appreciate that he was never a true small government man, cutting wherever he could). Those critics on the left will damn his campaign chicanery most of all, but may also stop to remember his frustrating love of roads, stalling of Auckland's CRL, mistreatment of international education and dodgy SkyCity dealings. (Which should help those on the right remember he played a major part in winning them three elections).

What I appreciated most about Joyce was his willingness to engage. While I suspect he had more than a bit to do with National's 'no debate' policy under Key, he himself was willing to front time and again, even if it was often with the intent of saying as little as possible. My strongest memory is the 2014 finance debate when I had to go into the studio at the first ad-break and have a stern word to him and Robertson and tell them each had 30 seconds of uninterrupted speech each to get things off their chest. They had spent the first part of the programme almost coming to blows, in large part due to Joyce's willful winding up of an increasingly frustrated Robertson.

But all that power and the joy of being at the centre of things was behind him. His caucus colleagues clearly did not want to stretch the Key years into another shape, they wanted to build something new. They didn't want the guy who's been running so much for so long to keep running them. And as successful as Joyce has been politically, that's the right call. 

As he said himself today, it's "a fork in the road" and if nothing else, Joyce has long proven that he's one of the best in the game at reading the signals. Come in cobber, your time is up.

And he's not the only one. Can Nick Smith survive without his mate English to protect him? Does Brownlee have the energy to plough on? Can Chris Finlayson bear more than a few months in Opposition? 

But the fork in the road not just for Joyce and not just for National. It's a fork in the road for the right in New Zealand.

Without the Key/English/Joyce troika at the helm, National must try to find a new purpose and winning strategy. The task is a large one. Whatever you make of that threesome's choices and policy pronouncements, they were a remarkably skilled group of politicians. To be frank, it's hard to imagine the new kitchen cabinet matching their abilities.

So the true test for National starts now. Bridges and, it seems, Amy Adams have to somehow become the party's policy rock and public face. As competent as both are, neither has shown any flair or special ability in either realm. National mocked Labour for it's Jacinda Ardern inspired stardust last year, but will be hunting desperately for some itself now. What they have is two very steady and sombre souls, which won't be enough unless the tripartite government really does fall apart.

Perhaps the best news for National today is that Joyce's departure means the arrival of Nicola Willis, a future leader in the party. 

Bridges and Adams have to get themselves known, earn trust, capture the mood and convince voters to take another look. But they also have to read the currents flowing around them.

The tide is turning for National and political history suggests it will be an ebbing one. Under Joyce's artful campaigning instructions National hit at least 44 percent in four out of five elections; that's not sustainable. The vote on New Zealand's centre right is due some movement.

New Zealand First will hope to be beneficiaries as soft National take a look around and wait to be convinced (or not). ACT may believe it can still resurface, though nothing I've seen since the election supports that hope. The Opportunities Party? We'll see. Labour may hope some will settle for them, for now. But the opportunity is ripe for a new party on the right. National is ripe for some infighting as polls move and trust (or fear) is re-earned. If it were a stock, National would be waiting for a price correction.

It's going to be a trying year for the blues; on one hand Joyce's departure draws the clearest line yet under the old guard and gives the new team room to make their mark. But on the other it leaves National looking thinner on political smarts and heft than it has for a long time.