John Key's U-turn on working with Winston Peters was
It was also archetypal Mr Key. Being a full about-turn, the
reversal of National's stance on dealing with Mr Peters
cements Mr Key's reputation as an arch pragmatist - a modus
operandi which may end up defining his prime ministership.
Perhaps unfairly so. In terms of tenure in Premier House, Mr
Key left Mike Moore, Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Jenny Shipley
trailing in his wake long ago. He recently overtook David
Lange and is closing in on Jim Bolger.
It all adds up to a heck of a lot of Cabinet papers and
meetings. Mr Key, no doubt, will want to be remembered as a
''change agent'' - one who took the people with him. Witness
this week's announcements on lifting school performance
through salary hikes for the best teachers and principals.
It puts any reconciliation with Mr Peters into perspective.
However, there will be many who will question the settings on
Mr Key's moral compass instead. You cannot say you would
rather lose power than work with someone and then turn around
a couple of years later and offer not so much the olive
branch as the welcome mat.
The change in attitude towards New Zealand First is further
evidence Mr Key will do whatever has to be done to secure a
third term for National on the Government benches in
Even so, Tuesday's wiping clean of NZ First's slate was
surprisingly deemed to be something of a surprise by some
elements of the political milieu. The ''surprise'' may have
simply reflected genuine amazement at the prime minister's
gall in trying to execute a 180-degree shift in stance with
as little drama as possible.
Or was the surprise a manufactured excuse seized upon by some
as another opportunity to express indignation at what might
seem to be more evidence of the prime minister's increasing
willingness to flout principles he previously espoused?This
case is very different, however, to the credibility-sapping
episodes of last year surrounding Kim Dotcom and te GCSB.
There are mitigating factors in Mr Key's defence. The Labour
Party may love Opposition - as an exercise in masochism at
least. National in contrast has a bodice-ripping lust for
power which is as core to why the party exists as its
conservatism. Every National Party leader knows his or her
survival is contingent on maintaining the uninterrupted
delivery of power.
Mr Key is no different. Nobody should therefore have been
surprised by the content of Tuesday's positioning statement
declaring which political parties National can do business
with after this year's election.
Surprise aplenty there would have been had Mr Key and his
cabal of senior ministers who mulled over the carefully
worded declaration reiterated the party leader's pre-election
announcements in 2008 and 2011 that National would not be a
part of any governing arrangement wIth New Zealand First
which left National at Mr Peters' mercy and able to pull the
plug on any such administration.
National's allies, however, do not look like returning to
Parliament in sufficient numbers to enable National to
continue to rule in the minority as it has done since 2008.
Without Mr Peters agreeing to offer his party's backing on
confidence motions - or giving a similarly binding commitment
to abstain when such votes are held in Parliament - the
whistle will be blown on National's six-year occupation of
the Government benches.
It is unlikely Mr Key will incur much political cost from the
U-turn, however. The public well understands MMP entails what
David Cunliffe cleverly described as the ''dance of the
Every time the Labour leader voices that refrain, it begs the
question of what he would do if he was facing Mr Key's
predicament. Saying he would not have got himself into such a
pickle in the first place is not really an answer.
Mr Key's volte-face on Mr Peters was already under way long
before this week's official declaration - another reason why
the latter was hardly a surprise. Mr Key has conducted a
softening-up exercise during the past year or so to get
National voters attuned to the idea of life with Mr Peters
Whenever he was asked before this week about National not
having the numbers on election night to govern, Mr Key
consistently predicted Mr Peters was unlikely to opt for
National because he had a strong dislike of the prime
minister. Moreover, Mr Key kept saying he was convinced Mr
Peters preferred to strike a deal with Labour.
What Mr Key was really saying was he was no longer ruling out
negotiating with Mr Peters, but the latter would not play
Then, as now, Mr Peters' response was to try to bury Mr Key
with bucket-loads of invective, claiming Mr Key was trying to
engineer the result of this year's election. Such diatribes
only broaden Mr Key's smile - and for one reason.
Mr Peters has been consistent from election to election in
stressing NZ First - should the party hold the balance of
power - will talk first to the party with the most seats in
Parliament. That party will almost certainly be National.
It is an advantage National will not squander. The big
question is whether National will be willing to trade the one
bauble of office which Mr Peters has never enjoyed (and which
Labour cannot realistically offer) to secure his signature on
a confidence and supply agreement.
Mr Peters has been a finance minister, a foreign minister and
a deputy prime minister. That leaves one large and obvious
gap in his CV.
Will National seek to find ways around the significant
constitutional obstacles to enable the leader of a minor
party to do a stint as prime minister obstacles such as could
he realistically sack a Cabinet minister from the majority
It is assumed Mr Key will quit politics in National's third
term assuming it gets one, Knowing he might get up to a year
or so in the top job would be a massive incentive for Mr
Peters to ensure, unlike its predecessor in the 1990s, a
National-NZ First Administration actually goes the distance.
- John Armstrong is the political correspondent for The
New Zealand Herald.