John Armstrong: Poll, what poll? Andrew Little puts his head in the election year sand

Appearing on Breakfast yesterday morning, Andrew Little brushed aside Jack Tame's questions about the Labour leader's dismal rating in the latest 1 NEWS Colmar Brunton poll.

Little not only refused to discuss the findings of the poll. He endeavoured to deny its very existence.

Source: 1 NEWS

He had good reason for doing so. In terms of shifts in support for the various political parties, the poll appeared to be a non-event.

The fact that those shifts were either minimal or non-existent was actually of huge significance, however.

It was the first major voter survey since Bill English replaced John Key as Prime Minister.

The absence of any fundamental change in the alignment of the parties was a blow for Labour.

The surge in English's rating as preferred prime minister is even more disappointing and demoralising for the major Opposition party.

Labour would have been quietly praying that the poll would be the game-changer that the centre-left has long been awaiting.

That it would show voters tiring of National. That it would show voters wary of English and suspicious of what kind of agenda he might pursue now that he was no longer operating the levers of power in tandem with Key.

That it would redefine the coming battles of election year in an instant.

To help make such a transformation in the political landscape more likely, Little and his colleagues have indulged in a campaign of credibility assassination.

English would have appeared to be a far easier target to hit than Key. English is far more the ideologue.

English carries a lot of the responsibility for the biggest blot on Key's record - the Auckland housing crisis. Above all, English had never really stepped out of the shadow cast by his brief and woeful stint as National's leader in the run-up to the 2002 election.

Labour and the Greens have closed the gap on National, according to the latest 1 NEWS Colmar Brunton poll. Source: 1 NEWS

Labour's theme was that while English was now the country's leader, that was in name only.

A real leader would have gone to Waitangi. A real leader would have stood a candidate in the Mt Albert byelection.

A real leader would have dumped Nick Smith from his Cabinet regardless of their close friendship. A real leader would have condemned Donald Trump's Muslim travel ban in the strongest terms.

Despite having denigrated Key for the best part of a decade, some Labour MPs went as far as issuing back-handed compliments to the man who had thrashed them three times at the ballot box in order to contrast his leadership qualities with English's supposed leadership deficiencies.

Labour would have been well-pleased had the first real measure of English's standing had him registering around 20 per cent in the preferred prime minister stakes.

Labour would have been even happier had support for National tumbled to around 40 per cent.

Both scenarios were well within the confines of possibility. But neither eventuated.

English surged to 31 per cent in the preferred PM ratings in the 1 NEWS poll - just five percentage points short of the 36 per cent registered by Key in the same survey back in November which was conducted just prior to Key's shock resignation.

Those Labour MPs who brought Key into the equation were right in a fashion. Key is about to exit Parliament, but his influence will linger a good while longer.

English's respectable showing in the poll will have been greeted in National's ranks with much delight and not a little relief.

But that rating was not the result of English suddenly basking in some newfound personal popularity. The rating reflects the fact that he embodies Key-style continuity rather than change.

The challenge facing English is to ensure that in his understandable desire for his prime ministership to stamp its mark on history, he does not jeopardise the expectation that things remain very much business as usual.

English also knows his healthy rating is also down to the kudos he has earned in his handling of the Finance portfolio.

The Prime Minister is asked about NZ First's possible post-election role following the latest poll result. Source: Breakfast

However, the often-intense day-to-day pressures of the job of prime minister will soon dim memories of his years as a "competent bean counter" - to borrow Little's clever slur.

Crucially, English's relatively high rating has given him a degree of legitimacy and authority which his status as an unelected holder of that office denied him. That is important in election year.

In dwarfing Little's miserable rating of 7 per cent, English now enjoys a huge psychological edge in the battle between the two major parties. That could be decisive in election year.

All up, English is still enjoying a political honeymoon in his new role. Such honeymoons can end in an instant.

But he is currently on a roll. The trick will be to keep things rolling until election day in late September.

Little's worry must be that his rating further shrinks and he finds himself being overtaken by Jacinda Ardern, one of his front-benchers.

Now that would be embarrassing for everyone concerned. You can guarantee one thing. Little will not want to talk about that.

The Labour leader is way behind Bill English according to the latest poll. Source: Breakfast