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A testing year ahead for Bill English

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 22/12/2016 Peter Wilson, Political Writer

<span style="font-size:13px;">Bill English must quickly demonstrate his leadership abilities because the first opinion polls of 2017 will point to success or failure.</span> © MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images Bill English must quickly demonstrate his leadership abilities because the first opinion polls of 2017 will point to success or failure. John Key left National in excellent shape, nudging 50 per cent in the polls and holding a huge lead over Labour.

The big question now is whether Bill English can keep it that way, and time isn't on his side.

The first opinion polls of 2017 will be out in January or February, and they'll inevitably be taken as indicators of success or failure in the general election.

Any slippage of more than a couple of points will be seized on by Labour, the Greens and NZ First as evidence that the public doesn't want English in the job.

They'll claim Key's successor can't cut it and that a change of government is on the way.

English won't have an easy ride and a look at Key's election record shows just how hard it's going to be.

In 2008 he won with 45 per cent of the party vote, in 2011 he raised it to 47.3 per cent and in 2014 he came back for a third term with 47 per cent.

Winning a third term is difficult, but it's easy compared with winning a fourth.

However, English does have some things going for him.

The economy is humming along nicely.

The latest GDP figures, released this week, show it growing more strongly than had been expected and it's well ahead of Australia, the US and Canada.

The Treasury expects unemployment to continue falling and it could be below five per cent by election time.

Budget surpluses are forecast to rise rapidly and hit more than $8 billion in three year's time.

English and his new finance minister, Steven Joyce, aren't going to do anything to rock that particular boat.

Economic and fiscal policy won't change, but in other areas English is likely to move quickly in the new year.

He has money to spend, and it's likely to go on social housing, police, health and education.

That will happen before the election, because he can't wait to produce a fancy manifesto and hope for the best on the night.

He'll want to lock in some gains before that, and keep the polls up before the campaign starts.

Historically, it's been shown that a slide in the polls ahead of a campaign is almost impossible to reverse.

English's other big advantage is the way the vote is split between three opposition parties.

The alternative isn't between National and Labour. On current polling it's between National and a coalition of Labour, the Greens and NZ First.

That's assuming Winston Peters would go with Labour and the Greens.

Labour took that for granted before the 2014 election but the reality is he could go either way.

National isn't likely to win on its own either, but because it will almost certainly have more seats than any other party it will be able to call the shots in post-election deals.

If its partners ACT and Peter Dunne come through, they'll be quickly signed up.

So will the Maori Party, if it survives.

Forming a Labour-led government, on the other hand, would involve serious and almost certainly difficult negotiations with uncertain outcomes.

When the campaign arrives, English will offer voters a choice between what he will say is a stable National-led government delivering a sound economy and an unstable collection of would-be coalition partners.

That could be an attractive pitch, but unless he can keep his own party's ratings within striking distance of 50 per cent the opposition will be able to say he isn't in a better position than they are when it comes to forming a government.

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