It should be evident by now that the pool of people capable of successfully leading a major political party in this country is very small. The precise combinations of characteristics required are extremely rare, so inevitably the list of those who tried and failed is longer than the list of those who got to the very top, ie, led their party to electoral victory in their own right, became Prime Minister for at least a full term as a result and—more important—stamped their personal authority on the office.
The would-bes over the past half-century include Nordmeyer, Marshall, Rowling, McLay, Palmer, Moore, Shipley, English, Brash, Goff and now Shearer. I don’t include Norman Kirk in that list; had he not died after barely 20 months in office he would have served a full term and probably more. Along with him, the list of out-and-out success stories, if you go by the criteria I’ve mentioned, is very short: Holyoake, Muldoon, Clark and Key. That leaves two others: Lange, who seemed more like a spectator of, if not a commentator on, his own leadership; and Bolger, who perhaps gets a pass mark—just.
Only about once in a generation, it seems, does one person arise who seems destined to become a convincing Prime Minister; Clark and Key have been the only two in the past 40 years, and even they, of course, have their flaws. No leader is ever allowed to remain just right for too long. Politics is a two-stage process: first you’re sworn in, then, inevitably, eventually, you’re sworn at. What, then, is the required combination of characteristics?
Researching the biography of Kirk that I’m currently working on, I came across Gerald Hensley’s description of him as ‘instinctive, vengeful, intelligent, suspicious and perceptive—a natural leader.’ That seems as good a job description as any. I’d add just one crucial ingredient: the ability, not given to many who perform on the public stage, to fuse your true self (the person you are to yourself privately) with the artificial persona mandatory for political success at the highest level. Insincerity is the sincerest form of politics. It seems a terrible thing to say, but David Shearer never really got beyond showing us his true self, and like Rowling and McLay in particular, just looked falser every time he tried to bridge the gap between that self and the part he needed to play.