Mr Key has already been an exceptionally successful leader for the National Party, and his unexpected decision to stand down after 10 years cements his place in history not just as a successful winner of a record number of elections but also turns the focus on what he has actually done.
For all the hopes and fears of his political opponents, that Mr Key would turn out to be some sort of political equivalent of Jenny Shipley or Ruth Richardson holding a beer, his government has not been noted for a particularly right-wing direction.
That is one of the things which has vexed the Labour and Green parties, whose members have repeatedly hoped Mr Key would do something ideologically rigorous and politically foolish. Mr Key, whose watchword has been flexibility rather than rigour, was not going to be so silly, and it is a mark of how badly his opponents have misread both the man and politics that they have continually hoped and expected him to do so.
So many years of trying to portray him as something he isn’t.
But his government has done some things that should, theoretically have been politically suicidal.
Selling shares in government assets was one: Putting up GST in the middle of a recession was another.
Holding government operating spending year on year for several years was a third.
Yet Mr Key and his loyal deputy and finance minister – and, it seems, preferred successor if he wants the job – Bill English, managed to pull that trick off.
And his government also stepped up Treaty settlements and, as Mr Key loves to remind people, also put up benefits in real terms for the first time since 1972.
Most importantly overall, Mr Key’s government steered New Zealand through the aftermath of the global financial crisis without doing what its predecessors in almost every economic crisis since World War II have done, and that was to go on a panic-stricken, politically unsustainable and socially ruinous slash and burn exercise.
Plus the welfare reforms, better public services and the investment approach – which may prove the most beneficial in the long term.
That success and his popularity were unusual for a party leader in New Zealand. Mr Key has had a personal popularity, above and beyond that of his party, and his followers have held him in the kind of affection not seen since … Well, there isn’t really a parallel in New Zealand history.
Mr Key hasn’t reached the quasi-sainthood of a Michael Joseph Savage, and neither would he or his party ever have aspired to hold such a near-religious status. He comes close though as a kind of secular symbol of a laid-back blokey brand of New Zealander.
I recall one year at OUSA (Otago Uni Students’ Assn) there was a backlash against a move to set up some new position for the minority of the week. So a group several hundred partially drunk students turned up to the next SRC and successfully passed the creation of a new position called “The Decent Kiwi Joker Officer”.
Maybe that is Key’s secular symbol – the decent Kiwi joker.
Mr Key’s departure gives National a chance to rejuvenate itself for the 2017 election at ministerial and other levels.
It is an administration that very much needs rejuvenation. It is a long way from reaching the kind of static sclerosis of previous long-serving governments but it was heading that way and a minor reshuffle in the New Year, followed by what was being seen increasingly as an inevitable election win, would see that sclerosis take hold.
It is time, as Mr Key said, for a refresh.
There will of course be some very significant changes now – a new PM, Deputy PM and Finance Minister in all probability. This may ironically remove the pressure for a shake up further down the ranks. But some portfolios will have to be reallocated. Who will take Tourism? If Joyce gets Finance who takes Economic Development, Science and Innovation and Tertiary Education? Will Hekia Parata keep Education until she retires or will that form part of a reshuffle?
Also if the Deputy PM is not the Finance Minister, what senior portfolios will they take?