Bill and Mary English move on

The devoted couple are focusing on the positive and looking forward to a busy and successful 2018.
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Bill English hates to break a promise. As a man who prides himself on his integrity, the Southern bloke’s word is usually as good as law – especially when it comes to his family.

But as he stands facing his wife, their hands interlocked and their eyes fixed on each other, perfectly framed by a view of Wellington City stretching behind them – the Beehive and its fluttering New Zealand flag front and centre – the new Leader of the Opposition is reminded of a vow he was forced to break.

“Six months ago, we stood just like this,” he remembers, smiling softly. “I looked into her eyes and I promised her I’d win the election.”

It would make it all worth it – the late nights, the stress, the inevitable vulnerability that came with putting not only himself but his family under the glare of the nation’s spotlight.

But as we now know, it wasn’t meant to be.

Bill and Mary found out Labour and New Zealand First had formed a coalition when the public did.

Yet when the Weekly meets the devoted couple at a friend’s home in central Wellington, it’s a remarkably upbeat, positive and animated Bill (56) that’s walking around, fingers snapping with restless energy.

Despite the result, for Bill and Mary anyway, it was still all worth it. Their family has never been closer, their relationship has never been stronger and though he’s no longer in power, Bill certainly isn’t feeling down about things – he’s positively chipper.

“There are a lot of things to enjoy about life,” he says with a wry grin.

“It’s been a rollercoaster. But there have been some fantastic moments, particularly with our family all together through the election campaign, and prior to that, a lot of highlights as prime minister, some of which Mary and I were able to share together, which was great.

“And then, of course, there was all the drama around the election, which was shared with the whole country.”

Never has there been an election that gripped the public interest quite like 2017’s – well, as far as Bill can remember at least, and he’s been through nine of them.

It had it all – admissions of benefit fraud, changing of party leaders, shock resignations – culminating in a result New Zealand has never seen. The party that won the most votes was ultimately unable to form a government.

And in the middle of it was Bill, the man who replaced the popular Sir John Key as leader of the National Party, a move, even today, he acknowledges was a risky position to find himself in.

Not the type of man to count his chickens, Bill says he approached the election “confident but paranoid”, knowing that in politics, anything could happen.

And seven weeks out from D-day, that “anything” did – Jacinda Ardern took over the Labour leadership from Andrew Little, sparking an upsurge

of attention.

Mary joined Bill on the campaign trail for the first time in 2017.

“The campaign had a real intensity of public interest,” he muses. “It has this constant energy, from the people around us, including the family, but also anywhere we went.

“The last couple of weeks, it became very strong and very positive. We had a great pathway into the election.”

And it had become a family affair. “It was a very special family time,” adds Mary (56). “Everyone had fun, and while it was frantic and significantly busy, [our kids] did their bit and turned up, and they made it fun as well. We felt like we were functioning as a team.”

The night of September 23 saw a triumphant Bill, supported by an equally happy Mary and their six children – Luke, Thomas, Maria, Rory, Bart and Xavier, who range in age from 18 to 28 – standing on a stage at an Auckland hotel in front of hundreds of supporters, revelling in receiving 44.5% of the public vote – however, Bill admits to conflicting feelings. They had the most votes, but it still wasn’t enough to form a majority government.

“It was a mixture really, of having family and friends there – we had a great night, on one hand. But the analytical job, on the other hand, of understanding [the result] was there.”

Did he think they’d done enough? Choosing his words rather carefully, Bill says, “No, not for sure. It gave us the responsibility to try to form

a government.”

“But there was a basis for feeling confident,” chips in Mary, a GP, who says for her personally, the result reflected what she’d felt as she travelled around the country with her husband in the last few weeks of the campaign.

“I felt satisfied there wasn’t one more thing that Bill or I, or our family, could have done. So that was really good and I felt good about it. I didn’t have a sense of foreboding or dread at all – and I’ve had that in the past!” she laughs.

“We’ve been through some tough elections and it certainly wasn’t like that,” agrees Bill.

“I know when it’s good and I know when it’s not good,” Mary continues. “As a doctor, you know, taking the pulse of the sentiment of New Zealanders who we were meeting through all walks of life, it felt good. I felt the patient was healthy.”

Almost four weeks later, however, the diagnosis proved to be incorrect as New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, holding the balance of power, opted to form a coalition with Labour – handing the election to new Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

And yes, Bill and Mary, holed up together in an office in the Beehive, really did find out at the same time we all did – though Bill tells that

by late afternoon, “you could sort of see it coming”.

Was he gutted? “There was natural disappointment,” he replies in a measured tone.

“There are things you can know in your head, but it’s always different when it actually happens. It’s your government one day, over the weekend you’re packing your bags, and Monday, you turn up in Opposition.”

In the moments following the coalition announcement, Bill’s attention turned not to focusing on his own sorrows – though he admits there were a few moments for a conciliatory beer and some self-reflection – but to his team, many of whom were now unsure if they still had a job.

“The [electorate] politicians know they’re staying, you get elected, you have a job. Others don’t. You have to get straight to that. Decisions have to be made quite quickly.”

Bill and Mary found out Labour and New Zealand First had formed a coalition when the public did.

Mary, while also disappointed, says she wasn’t surprised, but stayed calm and assured, even as hordes of media sought her out for comment.

“When I thought about the personalities concerned, I just thought, “Ah, one perhaps shouldn’t be so surprised,” she says.

“Mary’s great in those situations,” tells Bill proudly.

“Something I’d never seen before was the journalists asking her questions directly and she dealt with that with real poise.”

Eventually, the pair left the media scrums, disappointed colleagues and official business behind in favour of their cosy Karori home, where they took some time to talk about what they’d just lost. While they won’t be drawn as to what exactly was said to each other during those inevitably emotional moments, the couple do say they retained a sense of perspective.

“At the same time, the sun will rise the next day,” says Mary with a small smile.

“You get up and you keep going, no matter what. Life goes on.”

“We certainly discussed that missed opportunity – not just for us, but for the country,” adds Bill.

“I think that’s a really natural reaction. The kids are familiar with the ups and downs of politics, so they’ve been supportive and helpful all the way through.”

Instead of dwelling on the negative, both Bill and Mary choose to focus on the positive – which may explain Bill’s still buoyant mood as he changes clothes for yet another photo, laughing with the Weekly’s crew as lights are positioned and collars straightened.

Of course, he has been in this position before, when he led National to a defeat in 2002 against Helen Clark’s Labour government. This time, he says, is different – and no, he has absolutely no intention of throwing in the towel.

“The circumstances are different,” he nods. “The biggest difference is the large number of people who are still interested! Usually, when you lose, your own supporters lose interest.”

Also, for the first time, Mary joined Bill on the campaign trail, all the while juggling her practice and her patients. The experience, they both agree, has brought them even closer together.

“Some of her patients were quite surprised,” laughs Bill.

“She’d be on the TV, and on the cover of the magazine in the waiting room, and there she’d be sitting in the doctor’s surgery! It was great to have that experience together; having her involved was a very special aspect of it. I’m glad we did it.”

“That was one thing I was really pleased about,” adds Mary.

“Sometimes I’d have to swap a day, and apart from the last week of the campaign, I was doing both, but I was there for my patients because I really wanted to be, they’re great.”

Joining much of the National Party on the nationwide bus trip, Mary says the experience was thrilling.

“It was tremendous and a significant privilege,” she tells. “And I’m really glad we were able to savour each and every moment together.”

It was during those last few weeks of the campaign when Mary saw the Bill she knows and loves come into the public sphere – helped along by viral videos of his spaghetti pizza, “walk-runs” and a fair few helpings of dad jokes.

Even Bill admits he was surprised by just how much people identify with politicians’ personalities – “a new experience”, he grins.

“I’m very proud,” Mary beams. “I always knew he had that in him. I knew it was always there, you can’t make it appear out of thin air. It’s either there

or it isn’t. And I was absolutely thrilled that he got to have a run and express who he really is.”

“People saw me in a context they didn’t quite expect,” Bill agrees. “Probably doing a bit better than they expected.”

When asked if his wife provided much-needed support during those final weeks of the gruelling campaign, Bill goes to answer but Mary cuts him off, saying it was in fact the other way around.

“If anything, I was energised by you,” she says, turning to Bill.

“Your commitment just grew and grew. Your enjoyment of your fellow New Zealanders was a joy to behold, and that was inspiring. It was definitely the other way.”

So a few months into his new job as Leader of the Opposition – a role he’s previously described as “the hardest job in politics” – would Bill do anything differently? No. Is he proud of what he managed to achieve? Yes. Does he believe he’s just been just a little bit unlucky? Well, perhaps.

Mary juggled her job as a GP with the campaign.

“Politics is the same as anything else – timing matters,” he says grinning. “I’ve had a pretty good run and I’ve had the opportunity to be really extended in politics, both under pressure and when we’ve been doing well.

“It’s inevitable that you will lose sometimes – maybe it’ll turn out that it was better to lose this time.”

His focus is now to lead a strong Opposition and says if anything, he has even more energy and drive.

It’s also an exciting time for himself and Mary personally, with their youngest child Xavier having left college, marking an end to 25 years of their kids at school.

“That was quite a big event,” Bill nods. Mary agrees, saying, “It was huge – it’s a time in your life that you think will go on forever because it’s been going on for a long time! And suddenly, it’s gone, it’s finished and you can’t get that back.”

Bill and Mary with their children (from left) Bart, Luke, Rory, Thomas, Maria and Xavier.

After watching the dizzying highs and devastating lows her husband has navigated during his 28 years in politics, surely then there’s a small part of

Mary who wishes Bill would hang up his political gloves in favour of a less public, more stable job?

“I’ve been saying that for years!” she hoots.

“It’s nothing new. But I’ve learnt that he’s a man for all seasons and I leave it at that.”

The pair are getting away from it all for a quick holiday – they’re spending the New Year break in India attending a close friend’s wedding, before Mary returns to work at her practice.

Both are optimistic about 2018 – and moving into the New Year, Bill has no regrets.

“The real satisfaction is looking back on the strong, stable government that was good for the country and that I really enjoyed being a part

of,” he tells.

“And no election result takes that away.”

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