The first time I saw Steven Joyce speak to an audience, he was a prize prick. Indeed, I can't recall a senior politician being as openly contemptuous of a crowd as Joyce was opening the second day of NetHui 2011. It was astonishing.
The second time was last month, when he spoke at the launch of a new business service, to an audience of banking and business people. He was relaxed and wrly humorous, transgressing only in the frequency with which he used the opportunity to campaign for votes.
In the latter case, Joyce was among friends -- quite literally, in the case of his former ministerial colleague, Simon Power, Westpac's General Manager Business Bank, Private Bank, Wealth & Insurance -- and presumably felt he had something to gain by being engaging.
Joyce's appearance on The Nation this past weekend was clearly not such an occasion. He heckled and interrupted not only his fellow panelist, Labour's economic development spokesman Grant Robertson, but The Nation's host, Lisa Owen, who wound up shouting too. Robertson ruefully reflected later on Twitter that the discussion had not been great viewing. It wasn't. It was almost unwatchable. Which was perhaps Joyce's intention all along.
Joyce may have simply been prepared to look like an arsehole if it meant depriving Robertson of a sensible soundbite on regional development, an area where National is somewhat vulnerable. He knows it's not him the general public needs to like, when the Prime Minister retains an almost unprecedented level of popularity. And even when it comes time to contest the throne, Joyce's opponent is widely supposed to be Judith Collins. The likeability bar is not set terribly high.
But a series of tweets from Colmar Brunton last week shed a really interesting light on Key's consistent popularity. Only a third of voters believe John Key when he says he had never heard of Kim Dotcom until the eve of the raid on Dotcom mansion -- and 19% don't know and 48% believe Dotcom when he insists Key very much knew about him.
So two thirds of all respondents and, according to the full report, 43% of National supporters, either disbelieved Key or weren't sure. Fully a quarter of self-declared National Party supporters actively believed the Prime Minister is lying about a matter on which he has staked his credibility.
That question was asked in the context of a poll in which Key's support as preferred Prime Minister increased by a point to 48% and his party's support edged up to 52%. It's evident that a fairly large proportion of those who pick Key as preferred PM don't share the trust and affection for him that, say, Jonah Lomu and Mike Hosking do.
Those voters may simply be looking for stability and competence and not finding it on the Left. After David Cunliffe's weird lost fortnight of apologising-for-aplogising, perhaps that's not surprising. Had Cunliffe simply stood his ground on his Refuge speech and his family holiday, voters might have stood a chance of knowing who he is, even if they disagreed with him.
The irony is that when I looked up my original post about Joyce's NetHui horrorshow, I noticed that I'd recorded Cunliffe as being brisk, straightforward and relaxed, even as he basked in Lawrence Lessig's praise for his telecommunications reforms. That Cunliffe (and for that matter, talk of his regulatory achievements) has gone missing. Labour should send out a search party, if it's not too late.
But being popular ain't easy. Cunliffe isn't polling anywhere near Key as preferred PM, but he's not doing so badly that there's any show of a dark horse from any party overhauling him. National Party support is strikingly consilidated on Key: there are 14 people (including seven current or former Labour MPs) in the Colmar Brunton poll before we get to Joyce, who attracted support of 0.1%, equating to one person in the entire sample. That's half as many as Kim Dotcom, but more than Judith Collins, who polled no votes at all. If and when John Key decides to quit parliamentary politics, he will leave a large and possibly quite destructive vacuum to fill.