Tova O'Brien: Good first outing for PM Bill English, despite gaffes

Bubbly Bill, brazen Bill, bolstered Bill… buoyant, bullish, boastful Bill. Take your pick, but 'Bitter Bill' is no more. 

After his humiliating, record defeat as leader of the National Party in 2002, Bill English was widely described as bitter, behind - and in front of - his back. 

Now, he's finally getting a crack at being Prime Minister; he is as happy as a pig in Southland's finest roadside manure. 

The Europe trip was a whopping great test in his first month of leadership and it could have gone very differently. 

What with Brexit, Trump and several high-stakes European elections coming up there were ample opportunities for gaffe after snafu after faux pas but instead, English held his own. He was confident, relaxed and even seemed to enjoy the fanfare. 

With the media he was cautious. If he didn't know the answer he usually wouldn't attempt one. Something that had landed his predecessor in hot water - remember John Key's brain fades and calling journalists 'knuckle heads'?

The one time he properly misspoke - confidently announcing there were New Zealand spies in Afghanistan - an Ambassador and press secretary nervously scrambled to correct him. 

There's work to be done on his poker face. When British PM Theresa May was asked about her crack down on Kiwis living in the UK, English seemed to relish the awkwardness with a sly grin and a weird wee wink.

On food, a details man he is not. Forgetting what both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Theresa May fed him just moments after lunch: "there was mashed potato… and some green stuff".

As Prime Minister, English's opinion on major policy and social conscience issues takes on new importance. Here are a few we covered:

On military deployments: "We just have to wait and see", which means there could be an extension to deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On human-induced climate change: He says definitely "yes" he believes in it, having been less emphatic in the past saying it "may well be" real and has "some" impact.

On abortion: His Catholic views are well known, but to reiterate, he doesn't believe in abortion even in cases of rape or incest. Unlike US President-elect Donald Trump he doesn't think there should "punishment" for women who have abortions.

On Brexit and trade: He was careful and managed to avoid taking sides, though his free trade priority is with Europe not the UK. 

And unlike John Key on the Islamic State: He's playing down the risk of a domestic terror threat. But after Newshub revealed details of four IS fighters with links to New Zealand he admitted the Government may not be aware of all jihadis with Kiwi ties.

On Trump, Russia and hacking: He plays it self-deprecating; Little ol' New Zealand would be low on their radars so nothing to worry about there, but he won't say if Russia spies on us and concedes it's "possible" New Zealand could face more cyber attacks in election year. 

Overall, a good first international outing chocka with meetings with all the top dogs in each country he visited.

If a weird winky face and proclivity for forgetting what world leaders fed him were the only oddities of note, Bill English can consider his first international leadership test a success. 

It's points on the board in the first month of election year.

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