Easy as pie? English still has lessons to learn

9:42 pm on 8 December 2016

Power Play - Bill English is known to celebrate Budget Day with a meat pie, so today would probably warrant a trip to the parliamentary cafe for a pastry treat.

Two days ago, he was one of three contenders for the National Party's leadership, and the prime ministership to go with it, but today he blew the rest of the field out of the water.

Not one MP publicly declared their support for either Judith Collins or Jonathan Coleman, which is testament in itself to the breadth and depth of Mr English's support, reinforced by the strong endorsement of outgoing Prime Minister John Key.

But what has come out of the contest is a short, sharp reminder to the party's most senior MPs that those beyond the executive have felt more than a little neglected, and they were not prepared to roll over and accept the handover from Mr Key to Mr English as a given.

Mr English will be expected to heed that message, which will be reflected in some fresh faces in the ministerial line-up once he is formally installed as Prime Minister. That could include the likes of backbenchers Mark Mitchell, Alfred Ngaro and Chris Bishop.

The fact Mr English was initially presented with some competition under the banner of "refresh and rejuvenate" gave backbenchers an opportunity to show they were more than just lobby fodder.

While the leadership has now been settled, the race for the deputy is still on, and that is expected to be a closer contest between Paula Bennett and Simon Bridges. Both of them are younger MPs, relative to most of the Cabinet, and were singled out as stars early on and given opportunities accordingly.

Not all MPs are revealing their vote ahead of Monday's special caucus meetings, but Mrs Bennett - the unapologetic Westie - appears to be gaining momentum.

That contest is by no means over, but it is likely it will be just the two of them on the ballot. Despite talk of a third contender, anyone else considering a bid would be leaving their run very late.

This time last week, the next parliamentary year was laid out nicely: a Christmas break, a reshuffle at the start of the year and an election to follow, likely in September.

That has now gone out the window, but Mr English will want to have his new Cabinet in place before Parliament rises for the year.

He is also faced with the question of when to hold next year's general election - a question that has taken on greater urgency with the imminent resignation of Labour MP David Shearer.

If, as expected, he leaves early next year, his resignation from Parliament would automatically start the ball rolling for a by-election.

That would not be so much of a problem in itself, except there are two other MPs biding their time before leaving so as not to spark a by-election - Mr Key and Labour's David Cunliffe. A by-election in Mr Shearer's Mt Albert seat might hasten their departures.

Having lost the Northland by-election at the start of the year, and given the recent loss in Mt Roskill, the last thing National will want is potentially two more losses in the Labour strongholds of New Lynn and Mt Albert, all in the one term.

Under electoral law, a by-election does not have to be held within six months of a general election - but a date for the 2017 election has not yet been set.

By-elections are expensive and risk causing voter fatigue - one way Mr English could avoid a possible rash of them in the New Year is to seek the support of Parliament to invoke a six-month period where none can be held.

With the backing of 75 percent of Parliament, a prime minister can indicate a general election will be held within the next six months. They do not have to name a date, but it would block any by-elections, potentially giving Mr English time to bed in his new team and pass his first Budget.

Then all he has to do is win a fourth term, without the star power of Mr Key.

Maybe Mr English should have a couple of pies.

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