Jenna Lynch: A month of Prime Minister Chris Hipkins from the Hutt

OPINION: "Tag, you're it"

The text outgoing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern sent the incoming leader neatly characterises the meticulously planned handover of power. 

It really was nearly as simple as that. 

Chris Hipkins was elected unopposed by his caucus colleagues to become their new leader, and the country's. 

The hallowed political honeymoon period began.

Hipkins excelled at political set pieces. His first chat with the press was casual and cheery out on Parliament's forecourt on one of Wellington's good days. 

"A big day for a boy from the Hutt," he said. 

And so 'Prime Minister Chippy from the Hutt' was born. 

His first trip outside the beltway, the annual pilgrimage to Ratana, saw his evolution from viral meme minister to Prime Minister begin. 

His introductory speech was personable, personally-written and warmly received by a Labour-friendly crowd. 

Ardern's parting gift was the endorsement of a nickname. 

"You knew me as Aunty, I hope you know him as Chippy," she said. 

Hipkins continued his charm offensive at Waitangi. Not revered and adored by that crowd like Ardern, but likeable enough.  

In the coming weeks, he purged unpopular policy, promising a refocus on the cost of living, and came as close as he could to apologising for Labour getting distracted by other things. Smaller things than the 'things that matter'. 

And the rewards: his poll bounce. Overtaking National in the Newshub-Reid Research poll, he's put Labour back in the game and while it's nowhere near Jacindamania, there definitely is a Hipkins Hype. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Ratana.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Ratana.

In amongst all that, the rain came. And it kept coming. And coming.

The Auckland Anniversary floods and their Mayor's catastrophic response called for a crisis PM - Ardern was the master. 

Hipkins stepped up to the plate, choppering in to survey a city underwater, but didn't quite get his footing. He landed slightly off-kilter in a disastrous disaster media conference with a blustering Wayne Brown. 

It didn't take long to correct. He didn't have the chance. 

No sooner than the flood response began the cyclone swept in, taking lives, destroying homes and leaving devastation on an unfathomable scale. 

Hipkins' initial response has been hard to fault. He flew where he was needed. He was a reassuring voice of calm. He showed empathy and resolve. 

The Government, as required in times of national disaster, looked like it was there to comfort, protect, and rebuild

Cyclone Gabrielle's path completely changed the face of the East Coast. But she also completely charted a new course for this year's election. 

Disasters are the ultimate test of leadership on both sides of the spectrum. Every eye is on you and one teeny error can be the undoing of anyone. Just ask Simon Bridges about his probably very on-point but very poorly timed COVID Facebook post. 

Politicians rightly tread very delicately. 

Christopher Luxon has been walking a threadbare tightrope - he was a step behind Hipkins everywhere he tread in the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle and has been wary of public appetite for criticism of the response. 

Hipkins is up against a tower of crises. 

Chris Hipkins sworn in as Prime Minister alongside Carmel Sepuloni as deputy Prime Minister.
Chris Hipkins sworn in as Prime Minister alongside Carmel Sepuloni as deputy Prime Minister. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Cyclone Gabrielle has landed on top of a cost of living crisis that is crippling Kiwis' bank balances. The enduring challenges in the health system have not disappeared. 

Navigating a disaster response in acutely affected regions while keeping the rest of the country happy is no mean feat. His time at the top has been so jam-packed, Hipkins is yet to even visit the South Island.  

Aside from the titanic task of leading the response Chris Hipkins has the challenge to tackle in his leadership style. 

In comparison to Jacinda Ardern, Hipkins leads from the lip. He is quick to jump into a defensive position. His political animal lives at the surface, whereas Ardern kept hers buried away only to be unleashed in the right moment. 

This is what saw Hipkins leap into his crime conundrum - dismissing community concerns as rumour and speculation. 

It's also what saw him make a major economic error in the debating chamber, falsely claiming Labour was collecting less tax now than when they came into office. 

Both are minor discretions in the scheme of a disaster response but the role of Prime Minister calls for more measured responses and fewer mistakes.

A minister can get away with things a Prime Minister can't.

For instance, when Hipkins was COVID-19 Response Minister, both the Charlotte Bellis case and the mistakes he made with the Northland lockdown pair were damaging but not fatal to his career - partly because Hipkins has no qualms in owning his mistakes, something he has made a feature of his premiership.

Only one month in the job he was tagged into by his predecessor, the country and its challenges look completely different than what he inherited.

But while Cyclone Gabrielle rained all over any political preconceptions, Hipkins' outlook as Prime Minister is - thus far - looking fine. 

Jenna Lynch is Newshub's Political Editor.