Opinion: Bill English didn't cover himself in glory in Todd Barclay saga

Apart from the odd blemish, such as Gerry Brownlee’s notoriously short temper, the National-led minority Government has largely been free of the flaws which sooner or later afflict and then cripple and then destroy third-term governments.

The news comes as opposition parties seized on new allegations about the contents of the alleged recordings. Source: 1 NEWS

Those flaws include ill-discipline, arrogance, complacency and indifference to those who have kept the party in power over a long period.

Such failings can infiltrate the slickest of political machines — sometimes all at once.

Nevertheless, with just three months to go, National could have been excused thinking it would not fall victim to such faults this side of Election Day.

Source: 1 NEWS

It has instead fallen victim to something which it could never have predicted—the rampant ego of a nobody backbencher whose sole reason for being noticed is the very telling fact that he is the youngest MP in the current, but soon-to-be dissolved Parliament.

Enter Todd Barclay. The Clutha-Southland MP — though not for much longer — will struggle to be even a footnote to history.

The collateral damage from his self-destructive behaviour serves as a reminder of three things:
-no MP can be allowed to be under the misapprehension that they are bigger than the party they serve
-that the threats to the smooth running of a political party can come from within as much as from without
- and that failure by the party’s leadership to confront and deal with those two preceding factors in the short term risks the party having to pay a far bigger price in the long term

As prime minister for much of the time that Barclay was allowed to run amuck, the now-Sir John Key is guilty of what might be described as political negligence.

The same charge applies to Bill English, who has clearly struggled to separate his loyalties to the electorate he represented for 24 years as a constituency MP from the role of party leader.

It was easier to sweep the whole sorry mess under the Beehive carpet than risk turning Barclay into a rogue MP and what that might have meant for the preservation of National’s slim majority in Parliament.

The subsequent exposure of the ructions flowing from Barclay’s alleged recording of the conversations of an electorate office staff member left National dazed.

English has sought to play down the whole episode as nothing more than a run-of-the-mill employment dispute.

1 NEWS political editor Corin Dann grills the Prime Minister on the scandal that rocked the National Party this week. Source: Q+A

The Opposition parties have painted a far more sinister picture: that Barclay informed English of the recordings and that, rather than alert police to illegal activity, National’s hierarchy engaged in a cover-up that saw “hush money” from the taxpayer-funded leader’s allowance used to facilitate an out-of-court settlement in order to keep the affair out of public view.

In trying to catch English out on the detail, the Opposition parties failed to present the big picture, however.

The feeding frenzy within the Wellington Beltway has been met with indifference outside those confines.

Sure, the re-opening of the police investigation into the taping allegations will hover over National during the four-week official election campaign.

On past record, however, the police are most unlikely to have completed their work and made decisions on laying charges prior to Election Day.

In the interim, English is citing the investigation as a valid reason to refrain from all comment on anything remotely connected to Barclay.

That does not mean English is necessarily off the hook. There will be much muttering about taxpayer money being used to pull National out of a political pickle.

English will have incurred damage. But that will be the result not so much of what he has said but his demeanour while saying it. 

National’s annual conference last weekend was supposed to have been a platform for promoting the Brave New World of Bill English Future.

The assembled delegates were instead gathered together in front of a backdrop of a journey back to the Dark Ages of Bill English Past.

Those in National's ranks who were around in 2002 when English led the party to its worst defeat in its history will have experienced disturbing flashbacks.

English turned in less than convincing performances in television interviews filmed prior to last weekend’s gathering of the party faithful.

As one observer aptly noted, the Prime Minister wore the look of a prisoner in the dock.

He was defensive, hesitant, uncertain and evasive — all the characteristics he displayed in the lead-up to the 2002 debacle.

In almost every respect, the circumstances of 2002 and 2017 are entirely different. National’s worry, however, is that the mauling its leader has received from all and sundry over his mishandling of the Barclay affair will dent his confidence and stunt what has otherwise been an almost faultless transition into the country’s top job.

The fear will be that if National strikes strife during this year’s election campaign, the image English projects will turn into something uncomfortably close to the image he has projected over the past week or so.

The bottom-line for English — one his advisors will be urging he must heed — is that he not appear weak.

It could be argued that in fronting up for what he knew would be very uncomfortable television interviews, English was displaying real leadership.

He had little choice, however. It is unheard of for a party leader to duck the media at his or her party’s annual get together.

English’s other apparent act of strength since taking over from Sir John Key has been the turfing of Barclay off National’s ticket.

That was similarly not so much an act of strength as an act of necessity.

Andrew Little on the Todd Barclay scandal and his own intern headache. Source: Q+A

The opportunity for English to have displayed real leadership was back in March when it was confirmed that Barclay had refused to co-operate with the police in their investigation into the alleged illegal recording.

That admission instantly disqualified Barclay from continuing to be an MP. He should have been ejected from National’s caucus and procedures set in place to throw him out of the party.

That, of course, might have resulted in much of what National had been hiding flooding into the political domain.

At least, however, English would have been on the front foot, rather than hostage to the mixture of disturbing and embarrassing revelations leaking out of the party and onto the online news site Newsroom.

The absence of indignation both inside and outside Parliament following Barclay’s admission was a further incentive to do nothing.

It all makes something of a mockery of National’s claim to be the party of law and order.

But then the longer a party is in power, the more likely it is to become blinkered to such inconsistency and impervious to the criticism of those highlighting it.