When John Key anointed Bill English as his successor, he was confident in his own mind of exactly why: because he was a man who was there.
Indeed, for his entire life, Bill English has been a man who was there.
He first rose to the leadership of the National Party in October of 2001, when Jenny Shipley cornered him in the hallway after a caucus meeting, and threatened to take away his stamp collection if he didn’t succeed her.
He nearly considered just letting it go, but the day before, he’d acquired one with a little kiwi next to a kiwifruit. It was pretty clever, he’d thought, so he’d better hold onto it.
And so Bill English reluctantly agreed to do what he’d always done: the job nobody else wanted to.
At first, he didn’t know how to be opposition leader, but with time and hard work, he got even worse at it, leading National to its worst ever result: 20.9% of the vote.
English was quick to point out that 20.9% was actually more than one in five of all people in the entire country, which “when you put it that way, that’s quite a lot of people, actually.”
But no one was buying it, and English’s post-election efforts to rebuild National’s support, including decorating his office with Furbies and talking about his favourite Teletubbies, fell on deaf ears.
When he was told by colleagues that those things weren’t so much hip as they were actually for small children, he felt humiliated.
English couldn’t believe he’d been so stupid, but others could.
He was eventually replaced as National leader by a pensioner, after he was arrested for burning his Furby merchandise without a permit.
English faded into the background after that, but always he remained a man who was there, and on that fateful day just over a week ago, he once again got that dreaded knock on the door.
It was John.
“Please no,” he begged. “Not again.”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to, Bill,” explained John. “I’m leaving you, and if Judith becomes Prime Minister, people will get the death penalty for robbing the dairy.”
“We can accept that,” said Bill. “I can’t do it again. Don’t you remember the last time?”
“You’re a different man now, Bill,” said John.
“No I’m not,” he protested.
“No, you’re right, you’re not,” conceded John. “But Andrew Little looks like he’s had his face pressed in at the middle and rolled out with a rolling pin.”
Key was right, and English couldn’t deny it. He had to become Prime Minister, if only to protect New Zealand from Angry Andrew and the death penalty for parking too close to someone’s driveway.
A week later, he found himself at Government House, sitting next to Paula Bennett on one side, Dame Patsy Reddy on the other, being sworn in as the nation’s leader.
He felt immodest, and didn’t know whether his church or his wife would approve of him being this close to two women. He wore extra high socks just in case.
His mind was beset with the memory of that 2002 election loss, the time he’d spent in prison for the Furby burning, the humiliation of losing a charity boxing match as National leader, the time his father wouldn’t increase his allowance until he got his pocket money jar into surplus.
It ate at him and ate at him, until the applause of the room ushered him back to reality, and he was no longer the man who was there.
He was now the Prime Minister who was there.
Did you know? Five fast facts about Bill English
- Bill English was born in Lumsden in 1961, where his childhood best friend was a reel mower.
- He is 54 years old, meaning it will be another 13 years until he’s eligible for superannuation.
- He holds a degree in English literature, which he studied because he thought it was for him.
- During a 2002 election debate, he famously broke the audience reaction worm, which began flatlining when he spoke, and never recovered.