I’m surprised the media didn’t make more of the latest opinion polls that show support for John Key as preferred prime minister has suddenly dropped sharply.
Attention focused on the fact that both the TVNZ-Colmar Brunton and the 3News polls showed National retained a commanding lead over Labour, despite slippages of four points (TVNZ) and 0.9 points (3News).
But what I found far more interesting is that Key’s personal rating had slumped by eight points in the TVNZ poll, bringing him down to a 48 percent approval rating, and by five points in the 3News sampling (to 49 percent).
These results didn’t surprise me. The strong impression I’ve got over the past month or so is that the tide has suddenly turned for the prime minister.
Letters to the editor, radio talkback chatter and general conversation leads me to suspect that the magic aura that seems to have captivated the electorate since 2008 is starting to wear off.
Assuming I’m correct, what could the reasons be? One might be that Key has pushed his luck a bit too far. His mincing sashay down the catwalk in a Rugby World Cup volunteer’s uniform, as he now admits, was a bad look.
You can see how he misjudged the situation. He was trying to be playful and thought he could get away with it. And why not? After all, the public and the media have given him a dream run. But Key clearly didn’t realise how damaging it would look being endlessly replayed on the TV news. The catwalk strut has turned into Key’s equivalent of the Don Brash gangplank moment.
Then there’s the admission that he thought British actress Liz Hurley was “hot”.
You can go so far in trying to come across as an ordinary Kiwi bloke, just one of the boys, but the line between being jokey and crass is a fine one, and I believe Key blundered across it. At the risk of sounding quaintly old-fashioned, it was a remark unbecoming of a prime minister. It demeans the office.
What makes things worse is that he made the remark in the course of a chat with disgraced sports jock Tony Veitch, a man convicted of violent offences against his former partner. Key shouldn’t even be sharing a studio with Veitch, still less indulging in blokey banter with him about who’s “hot”.
One of Key’s political strengths is that, unlike his National Party predecessors, he appeals to women voters. A few more remarks like that, however, and his appeal might start to wane. He may be learning there are limits to how far he can go in pushing his “aw shucks, I’m just a regular guy” persona.
A bigger factor may be that there comes a point when the public demands more from its prime minister than amiability and photo opps. With an election looming 10 months away and an economy teetering on the brink of a double-dip recession, that time may have arrived.
Admittedly, Key still enjoys ratings that would be the envy of many political leaders, but it will be interesting to see how they track over the next couple of months. I certainly won’t be surprised to see the slippage continue.