No matter what happens in the Saturday election, the ‘cup of tea’ saga last week is the beginning of the eventual end for National Leader John Key.
Every political Leader eventually slides back down the infamous “slippery pole” of political popularity and power. What ever happens next, and however long it takes, the CuppaGate week was the start of Key’s slide.
- The media has turned: Tasting Key’s metaphorical blood has excited political journalists. For three years most of them have been confounded by his confidence, and in awe of his freshness and his popularity. Now they have tasted what it is like to beat that power. They enjoyed it. They’ll want to do it again. Then the public will see a succession of critiques of Key. He will appear to be regularly making mistakes. That will change the narrative people tell themselves about John Key and his relevance to their lives.
- The media is bitter: John Key took on the media when he complained to police and claimed the recording incident could be the start of unethical media tactics. The following police investigation threatened all media, and the ethics matter was not a question by an accusation against journalist’s professional quality. Now it’s a fight. Not only have they tasted what it is like depower Key, they are motivated to do it.
- The public has seen flaws: Voters are undoubtedly less interested in the incident than the media, and less interested in its role in helping them make a voting decision. But they are interested, and they have seen that Key’s magic is vulnerable. What-ever was actually said between John Key and John Banks at that cafe table, the public think they have now seen Key being at the very least sloppy and injudicious. At the most they have seen him politically manipulative and lacking respect for the views of some types of voters.
What are the implications of such a moment in the life of a Leader?
- Working life gets harder: Once the invulerability has gone, an end because plausable. That emboldens those who once feared some sort of professional or personal ramification from expressing a negative view, or from not co-operating. And now there’s more people and organisations willing to publicise their criticism. This applies, quite crucially, within the Leader’s PArty as much as without.
- Popularity becomes more important: when popularity goes into short supply, a politician needs to work harder to keep what they’ve got. As they lose it, point one above gets stronger. As a result the Leader’s judgement becomes more impaired by the search for popularity.
It’s hard to fathom the impact of this watershed moment. The most critical impact will be on asset sales. John Key has previously lent his mana to fix troublesome matters such as national educational standards and mining on conservation land. If my assessment is correct, his mana is now fragile right at the time of National’s biggest challenge: mixed ownership of public assets.
Disclaimer: The purpose of this blog is to analyse the business of politics. I’m marking this John Key moment out of political interest. After the election I’ll look back at the moment Phil Goff lost, three years ago, and perhaps, how he almost won a moral victory in this election campaign.