Key plays apprentice card

They say you never lose any votes by bagging Australia or sacking a minister. Ditto apprenticeships. It's hard to go wrong by funding more of them. And as former Labour leader Helen Clark knew, their appeal crosses nearly every political divide.

So although the polls tell one story, John Key's charging start to 2013 tells a very different one.

After surprising everyone by bumping off a couple of ministers just for being average, Mr Key raised eyebrows again by reaching deep into Miss Clark's old bag of tricks to announce 14,000 "new" apprenticeships and money for new tools.

National might have every reason to feel complacent after starting the year still supreme in the polls, despite a worse-than-middling 2012.

But Mr Key's new sense of urgency suggests National is picking up a subtle shift in sentiment.

Traditionally, Mr Key has used his annual state of the nation speech to serve up unpalatable medicine such as the zero budget and the sale of shares in state-owned assets.

That played well against the recurring theme of austerity - and it certainly showed National was far more in tune with the mood of the electorate than his opponents. Think back to 2011, when Phil Goff countered Mr Key's zero budget speech by using his own state of the nation speech to promise a $5000 tax-free band. That went down like a lead balloon.

But austerity with no end in sight may be starting to wear thin.

Friday's announcement of cash grants for apprentices to kit themselves out with new tools may only be nickel-and-dime compared with some of Labour's big ticket vote grabbers - such as interest-free student loans, but it will resonate with voters who may be starting to wonder if there is anything more to National's economic policy than penny-pinching.

It also attempts to nip in the bud Labour's claim that National is too hands-off on the economy.

Hence Mr Key's sudden declaration on Friday that another zero budget was unlikely and that the fiscal situation was no longer National's most pressing priority.

Instead, he is stressing National's intention to keep its hands on the levers - not just through steering more young people into apprenticeships, but by threatening to step over the top of local councils and open up more land for affordable housing development.

In the immediate aftermath of the global financial crisis, the Christchurch earthquakes and finance company failures, voters were looking for a safe pair of hands and a firm hand on the purse strings.

But now, with unemployment still high, the lack of affordable housing nearing crisis point and no sign of a letup in the exodus across the Tasman, there is a mood for something more than steady as she goes.

So Friday's speech, and Wednesday's dramatic reshuffle, were more than just a boot up the proverbial of underperforming ministers.

It was an acknowledgment that the time may be nearing when voters start shopping around if they don't sense that National is tackling the economy's problems with a sense of urgency.

We might still be nearly two years out from the next election but Mr Key knows the time when his government is most vulnerable is in the here and now - especially after a difficult 2012.

There are still enough loose ends hanging over from last year - think Dotcom, SkyCity, asset sales, Novopay, to name but a few - to cause a frisson of alarm that 2013 could just as easily lurch out of control.

On their own, none of those distractions may be enough for voters to look elsewhere.

But collectively, they are enough to distract from the economic message and contribute to the sense of drift that took root during the second half of last year.

That sense of drift may have been partly due to factors beyond National's control.

The Maori water challenge to plans to hock off a minority stake in the state-owned power companies now looks to have been as groundless as the Government claimed all along.

But that didn't stop it temporarily grounding the first round of share floats.

Given the unpopularity of the asset sale programme, it might be tempting to see that as a silver lining for National.

But it has more likely had the perverse outcome of contributing to a general perception that National's economic programme has stalled.

Or so the thinking goes within the Beehive.

So Mr Key's message to his ministers after last week's reshuffle was simple; narrow the focus, minimise mistakes - and start making a mark in your portfolios, or make way for someone who will.

Retaining Hekia Parata might look like it ran counter to that message, of course, given the number of headaches she caused the Government in her education portfolio.

But she is on a very short string.

Mr Key has now buttressed enough support around Ms Parata that if she continues to blunder she can expect to be just as unceremoniously dumped as ministers Phil Heatley and Kate Wilkinson were.

Other ministers in the Key Cabinet should be just as worried.

A precedent has been set.