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PoliticsJune 21, 2017

The talented Mr Barclay

bill english todd barclay 2

Todd Barclay is going, but how much damage has he caused – to his party and especially to the leader who tried to cover for him? Or has Bill English brought this on himself?

Remember when former PM John Key went on radio station The Rock and took part in a prison rape joke, and when he told Radio Hauraki listeners he’s been known to piss in the shower? Planned, or random?

The prime minister (that one, and now the new one) has a sophisticated political analysis machine and you might think, given commercial radio’s well-known addiction to pranks, that they had some rules in place for the PM’s appearances. That they might even, I don’t know, vet the quickfire questions he was going to get.

But that’s not the case. Random happens all the time. As much as politics gets planned, politicians say and do all sorts of things that just turn up in their heads. Remember that, when trying to work out how the government got itself into such a mess with Todd Barclay.

So, how to explain the youngster from Clutha-Southland? He’s a chancer: son of local businesspeople, wrote to Bill English and got an interning gig, parlayed that into work for other ministers, and made sure all of that helped him in the eyes of the local electorate.

Bill English didn’t endorse Todd Barclay to replace him as National’s candidate for the electorate. That might have struck some people as odd, given that English knew Barclay well enough to have had a pretty good grasp of his potential. Didn’t matter. There were enough photos of the two of them together, and you can be sure Barclay has a CV, and a speech to go with it, that makes him seem like he was totally the favoured son.

Hindsight’s a blessing, of course, but doesn’t Todd Barclay seem like a political version of the talented My Ripley right now?

The electorate bought it. And here’s the most important thing to know about National Party electorates: if they’re big enough and functional enough, they are not beholden to head office. And Clutha-Southland is very big: Richard Harman at Politik reports they may have as many as 1500 members. That’s enormous. That makes the National Party the club of choice for a certain type of Southlander.

They can choose their own candidate. And Todd Barclay was at liberty to remain their candidate for as long as they wanted him. The PM and the party could have tried to talk them out of it, but unless the party expelled him altogether they couldn’t pull rank.

Of course, Bill English could talk them out of it. Actually, he wouldn’t even have to talk, because there’s only one true favoured son in those parts and it’s not Barclay. One wink from English and the upstart would have been mucking out the cowsheds for the rest of his natural life.

So it’s a little odd: why didn’t Bill slip them that wink?

Is it that despite the sophistication of the government’s political management – and the party’s along with it – they don’t control everything? Partly, yes. The cockup has happened because they don’t control Todd Barclay. But it’s a far bigger cockup than it might have been because they didn’t think it would get this big, and when it did they still didn’t think they needed to do very much. Because that’s how they roll, the PM’s political handlers.

The first question they ask is: is it Beltway? Is the issue at hand, whatever it is, just going to look like the insular and self-obsessed Wellington media vs real New Zealanders? Can they make it look like that?

If the answer is yes, then the strategy is to do as little as possible, because as the “scandal” unfolds, it won’t hurt the government. It will reinforce their political support outside the circles of tragically obsessed Wellington political types.

This strategy worked very well for eight years and may still be working. Will the Barclay debacle hurt the government? It might well not. Bill English has, finally, acted.

Still, let’s remember: what’s the worst sin here?

It’s not Barclay’s is it? He’s just the jerk who caused the mess, the way jerks do. The prime minister stated on Tuesday morning that he could not remember who had told him about the recordings, when it turns out it was Barclay himself, and that English had known that when he was interviewed by the police.

That is, prime minister Bill English admitted he had lied to us and that he had been part of a year-long coverup of possibly criminal activity.

Who wouldn’t remember telling the police, in a formal interview, that one of his colleagues had possibly broken the law? Who wouldn’t remember that colleague confessing it?

And why is “I forgot” even a credible defence – in this, or most other situations where politicians use it? To be so forgetful goes to their competence, doesn’t it?

Bill English is an honourable man. Right? Well, that’s what we thought. That’s what he wanted us to think, and I’m one of the many on record as believing it.

But all political leaders begin their time at the top wrapped in the cloaks of honesty and decency. They make a point of it. At some stage, those cloaks slip from their shoulders and we discover what’s underneath. Bill English is looking pretty naked today.

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