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Changes and new directions under English

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 8/12/2016 Peter Wilson
Bill English © Getty Images Bill English

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It won't be business as usual in the Beehive on Monday, and it won't be business as usual next week or next year.

Bill English won't be leading the same government as John Key did, there will be fresh faces on the front bench, new policies and new directions.

National's backbenchers have driven a new deal - their total support for English as prime minister has strings attached.

They outnumber the cabinet, they haven't had much of a voice for the last eight years, and they haven't had much input into Key's decision-making processes.

All that has changed.

Key wanted a seamless leadership transition from himself to English, which is why he anointed his deputy when he announced his resignation on Monday.

It didn't happen.

The backbenchers had a message to get across, and they weren't going to quietly file into the caucus room to applaud an unchallenged successor to Key.

They wanted a contest, and they got it when Judith Collins and Jonathan Coleman challenged English.

They had both tested the water, and believed they had a chance.

During two frenetic days English won the support of the backbench and the challengers withdrew, but he and his backers had to work for it.

Now he has to deliver on it.

English will probably announce his new cabinet next week, and the only sure thing is that Steven Joyce will be finance minister.

Some of the old hands will have to go to make room for eager newcomers.

Portfolios will be shifted around, rankings will change, egos will be wounded.

This is good for National. It was never going to win a fourth term with more of the same.

The backbenchers have made sure it won't deliver more of the same.

They decided to support English because he's a tried and trusted finance minister and deputy prime minister.

He has vast experience, the business sector knows him.

Going into an election year, Collins and Coleman were too risky.

Joyce has been accepted as the right choice for finance minister, but that's as far as it goes.

English has a delicate balancing act ahead of him.

In his own words, the stability and predictability of the Key government will continue.

He doesn't want to scare the horses, so he must retain a core of the old guard.

At the same time he must ensure there isn't any ongoing restlessness and potential divisions in the caucus.

He has to satisfy the call for change, or at least go a long way to satisfying it.

English has some room to move.

Joyce will presumably shed his portfolios of economic development, tertiary education, employment and innovation and science.

Hekia Parata isn't going to stand again, so he could give her education portfolio to someone else right away.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully is undecided about standing again, English could make his mind up for him and give the job to someone else.

Those are the easy decisions.

The hard ones are who he is going to sack.

As for policies, there have been some interesting revelations over the last two days.

Health Minister Coleman said the sector needed more money and didn't see tax cuts as a priority.

"What I'm saying is there have to be priorities to be properly funded around health, education and infrastructure and if there's money left over, tax cuts at the same time," he said.

Collins said she wouldn't support straight out tax cuts, favouring what she called "a family package".

Several backbenchers thought there were more important priorities than tax cuts.

English, in his Budget Policy Statement released on Thursday, dangled the usual "when it is affordable the government would like to lower income taxes with a focus on helping lower and middle-income earner", which he has been saying for years.

But he added: "However, responding to the earthquakes and reducing debt are currently of higher priority".

That was new, and could mean tax cuts will be off the agenda as an election sweetener.

There's one event left before Key steps down and English is sworn in.

Caucus will choose his deputy at a meeting on Monday morning.

Paula Bennett is the establishment candidate, fifth ranked in the cabinet and one of Key's confidantes.

Simon Bridges is standing as "the champion of the backbench".

Bennett is currently frontrunner on publicly-expressed preferences.

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