Opinion: Leadership may be poisoned chalice for John Key's successor

In his passage from state house to Premier House, John Key has been the talking and walking embodiment of what the old welfare state sought to create.

The Prime Minister today announced his resignation. Source: 1 NEWS

The bountiful cradle-to-grave help handed to the poor was not just about equality. It was also about equity.

That was the notion that everyone could become Prime Minister given the opportunity, no matter how humble their family background or financial circumstances.

It was the function of the state to provide the means - be it free education or whatever - to enable individuals to break through the ceiling imposed by poverty and exploit their full potential in whatever career they chose to follow.

Mr Key grabbed that opportunity with both hands.

The welfare state head been created with the purpose of being a safety net for those who had lost their jobs in the private or state sector, such as those who were thrown on the employment scrap heap in the wake of Labour's adoption of free-market policies in the 1980s.

It was most definitely not intended to be a recruiting agency for money market whizz Kids like Mr Key who were the real beneficiaries when it came to making fast money out of the financial bubble that such "Rogernomics" policies were responsible for artificially inflating.

Source: 1 NEWS

As he later rose through National's parliamentary ranks with a speed which quickly singled him out as a leader-in-waiting, Mr Key was quickly labelled as a traitor to his working class origins.

Labour became so blinkered by this hatred of Mr Key that it devoted huge efforts and resources to trying to destroy him.

That tactic repeatedly backfired. The majority of voters simply did not want to believe Mr Key had shortcomings or had done anything that looked dodgy.

Mr Key understood that such a happy state of affairs does not last forever. Voters ultimately turn against a Prime Minister and do so with an ever greater and meaner vengeance the longer that person has been in the job.

The moment came as a bit of a shock among many who were at today's press conference Source: 1 NEWS

That seems undoubtedly to have been a factor behind today's shock announcement.

Mr Key only had to remind himself of the fate of Helen Clark, his predecessor as Prime Minister, to work that out.

One of Key's greatest strengths is that he is a very quick learner - and was not choosy about who was providing the best lesson.

Clark was his model. Like him, Helen Clark was outstanding in managing the 101 tricky matters that flow in and out of a Prime Minister's in-tray or inbox at any given time.

Both Mr Key and Ms Clark may be most remembered for being pioneers in reshaping the role of Prime Minister to cope with the complexities of minority government while still managing to win elections.

Unlike Ms Clark, however, Mr Key has opted to go out on a high. Politics is highly addictive.

But Mr Key realised he had reached or was close to reaching the point where his day-to-day exercise of power no longer produced the satisfactory high for him to keep doing the job.

And he hardly needed the money. And he hardly needed the fun prospect of having to soon govern with Winston Peters alongside him.

The PM, during his resignation announcement, got a bit teary as he spoke about stepping down. Source: 1 NEWS

Whoever replaces Mr Key will soon discover that he has made the job look relatively easy.

They will have to meet National's bottom-line requirement that any leader must retain the party's grip on power no matter how long or short he or she has been in the job.

In that vein, Mr Key's resignation may yet prove to be a very poisoned chalice for his replacement.

Mr Key's success was down to two major factors.

First, he was a great communicator who could charm people on every level both on the television screen and off it, and be it the president of the United States or the president of the local Lions Club.

Having announced his resignation, the PM praised Kiwis. Source: 1 NEWS

Most of all, he never suffered from one of the worst faults of politicians. He never talked down to anyone.

He could be - and not that infrequently was - economical with the facts.

At such times he looked less like the arrogant emperor with no clothes and more akin to the naughty school boy or girl dispatched to the principal's office - and that was something with which everybody could empathise.

The other guiding factor was his pragmatism. He was an unrelenting believer that politics was the art of the possible. If it wasn't possible then it didn't happen. Full stop.

More than that, he was willing to openly play fast and loose with National's guiding principles if that was required to outflank the party's opponents and capture ground which had traditionally been their stamping ground.

Labour would claim his apparent pragmatism was a fake construct to shroud his Government's right-wing agenda.

There is some truth in that.

But his seeming practice of putting the priority on the pragmatic ahead of the ideological was also a legacy of his upbringing.

Unlike those in National who consider themselves to be born-to-rule aristocrats, Mr Key came from a very different world, one which prided itself by being self-reliant but without putting that into an ideological context.

That places him a lot closer to Labour than that party would want to believe or would ever admit.

Mr Key's statement that he hoped to leave the post of Prime Minister with the country in better shape than he had found it echoes the departing remarks of National's ultimate pragmatist, Sir Robert Muldoon, almost to the word.

That may be a little joke he has made on his part.

But Mr Key's many critics on the left will have a much harsher verdict. They will argue that Mr Key leaves a country where the gap between rich and poor has widened considerably throughout his tenure.

And that his betrayal of the means which enabled those like him to climb up the ladder of meritocracy is his true legacy.