Born in the rural Southland town of Dipton in 1961. He gained degrees in commerce and English literature from Otago University and Victoria University of Wellington, respectively. After completing his studies, he returned to Dipton to work as a farmer. In 1987, he returned to Wellington, working as a policy analyst. He spent two years doing this before returning to Dipton.
English had joined the National Party in 1980, and had served in administrative capacities for party branches both in Southland and in Wellington. In 1990, he stood as the National candidate in the Southland electorate that encompassed Dipton, and won. He was reelected in 1993.
At the beginning of 1996, English was elevated to Cabinet and given responsibility for Crown Health Enterprises (healthcare providers created by the National Party's reforms of the public health service, which sought to create an internal competitive market). He was also made Associate Minister of Education. After the elections later that year, however, responsibilities were reshuffled, and English emerged as full Minister of Health.
After the coalition between National and the smaller New Zealand First Party collapsed, the position of Treasurer (senior to that of Finance Minister and created especially for New Zealand First leader Winston Peters) became vacant. The former Finance Minister, Bill Birch, was promoted to the position Peters had vacated, leaving the Minister of Finance portfolio free. English was given this responsibility. Later that year, Birch and English were swapped, with English becoming Treasurer and Birch becoming Minister of Finance again.
However, the National Party lost the 1999 elections to Helen Clark's Labour Party. English remained National's spokesperson for financial matters. In October 2001, dissatisfaction with party leader Jenny Shipley had failed to abate, and English was able secure the backing of a majority of National Party MPs. English replaced Shipley as head of the National Party and as Leader of the Opposition.
However, English failed to improve the party's performance. In the 2002 elections, National suffered its worst electoral defeat ever, gaining barely more than twenty percent of the vote. Both party insiders and the general public were split as to how much English was responsible for this loss, but most of the party believed that English would be able to rebuild National's support.
By late 2003, however, National's performance in opinion polls was still poor. The party had briefly increased its popularity in the year following the election, but by October, its support had fallen to levels only slightly better than what it achieved in the last ballot. Don Brash, former governor of the Reserve Bank and a relative newcomer to politics, began to build up support to replace English. While Brash was not overwhelmingly popular, English was perceived as highly ineffectual and prone to embarrassing mistakes. On 28 October, Brash gained sufficient backing in Caucus to replace English as leader.
English remains a National Party MP. On 2 November, when Brash announced changes in responsibilities for certain MPs, English was made National's spokesperson for education, ranked at fifth place in the party's parliamentary hierarchy. He has stated his wish to remain in parliament beyond the 2005 election, ending speculation that he might choose to retire from politics.
Another Bill English was an inventor of the computer mouse.