Suddenly there's a fight to the death going on amongst 'National's little helpers'. The three minor parties seeking to be National's support partners after the election are increasingly chasing the same votes, producing a bitter fight. The result could be that they all perish.
Conservatives fight to kill Act in Epsom
At the sharp edge of the battle between the conservative minows is the possibility of Act being killed off in the Epsom electorate due to the Conservatives' decision to run Christine Rankin against David Seymour. As Derek Cheng reports, the Conservatives are running a very aggressive campaign that seeks to exploit antagonism about 'dodgy deals' - see: Dirty deals out for Epsom hopeful. Not only will Rankin seek to win votes for her 'clean hands' and electoral 'integrity' but she is differentiating herself as the socially conservative option against Act's liberalism and using populist concerns about drugs and alcohol.
So could Rankin win? It's extremely unlikely. But she could cause a reluctant victory for Paul Goldsmith over Act's David Seymour, thereby killing off Act - potentially for good. According to blogger Fundamentally useless, 'If Craig and Rankin can syphon off enough votes, it could put Goldsmith reluctantly over the line. This would wipe out Act, and potentially establish the Conservatives the only solid party on National's right flank. The Cons might lose the battle, but with the demise of Act and the increasing senility of Winston, they could win the war by establishing themselves as the party of the far right' - see: Colin Craig - crazy like a fox?.
Many are seeing the Conservatives' decision as a form of revenge upon National for not agreeing to a deal in East Coast Bays for Colin Craig. This is well put by Martyn Bradbury in his blog post, Hell have no fury like a scorned Colin Craig. He says: 'Colin has decided that he will damage the other Right wing coalition partners so badly that National have no one else to consider in 2017. Colin is playing a long game here, he's accepted that he's been snookered for the 2014 election, but he will steal NZ First policy and ideas to sink them under 5% and now is running Christine Rankin in Epsom to kill off Act. Now far be it for me to inflame the anger between the Conservatives, National, Act and NZ First, but fight you buggers. The ideal outcome here would be ACT lose Epsom while NZ First and Conservative Party battle each other to under 5%'.
The NBR's Rob Hosking believes there will be a growing temptation in Epsom to vote for the National candidate in order to kill off the 'electorate deal' circus: 'Epsom electors will probably be the most surveyed in the country over the next six weeks. That could also add to a "fed up" sentiment. Any Epsom voter wanting to minimise the chances of a repeat of the circuses of the 2005, 2008, 2011 and now this election will be sorely tempted to give National both ticks and to get the whole circus to move to another, less exclusive, area' - see: Rankin and the risk of a 'fed up' vote in Epsom (paywalled).
Rob Hosking and Jamie Ball have also argued that 'the advent of the colourful and controversial Ms Rankin will split the liberal-conservative vote and throw the race wide open' - see: Body blow for ACT: Rankin to stand for Conservatives in Epsom (paywalled).
Hosking says that this is about a long-term battle by Craig: 'This is largely a 2017 ploy: the idea is to take Act out of the picture so a future National government is reliant on the Conservatives for support. The party does not want Mr Key, or a future National prime minister, to neutralise its influence in the way Helen Clark did with the Greens by playing it off against another support party'.
In line with this, Danyl Mclauchlan says 'I think this is less about the current election and more about Colin Craig positioning himself for 2017. If he can knock Act out in Epsom then surely that'll be the end(?) and Craig can attract those right-wing votes next time around, along with some New Zealand First votes if, as everyone assumes, Winston Peters will resign at the end of the next Parliament. That might get him to 5%. Can he knock Act out in Epsom? I dunno. Banks' majority in 2011 was just over 2000 votes - quite low, because 50% of Labour and Green voters voted strategically for National's Paul Goldsmith. The Conservatives won't have to win many votes off Act to have a spoiler effect' - see: Live by the coat-tail, DIE by the coat-tail.
Also on the left, Greg Presland says the Epsom result could be significant for this election, determining whether National's re-election bid succeeds or fails: 'at the end of the day I suspect that there will be a sufficient number of National supporters who refuse to go along with National's dirty deal to prevent this deal from working. This will be significant. Effectively marooning 3 to 4% of right wing vote may be the difference between National winning or losing. On election night I am sure that all eyes will be on Epsom' - see: Christine Rankin is standing in Epsom.
One rightwing blogger is less convinced, arguing that 'Rankin is an inconsequential distraction, nothing more' - see Jono Natusch's Christine Ranking in Epsom. He points out that 'in 2011, the Conservative Party came sixth in the Epsom party vote contest, gaining just 412 votes, and fifth (of eight candidates) in the electorate vote, picking up just 342 votes'.
It might seem unlikely, but today even David Farrar points to a scenario where the Conservatives could win the Epsom seat: 'Think about this scenario. It is two weeks to go and Act is polling 1.1% and Conservatives 2.8%. National looks like it will be say three or four seats short of a majority.
Conservatives point out a vote for Rankin gets 4 of their MPs into Parliament while a vote for ACT gets just one MP. Regardless of what National has said, Epsom voters could decide to vote for the smartest tactical option' - see: Rankin for Epsom.
Will National pull Goldsmith out of the race? This is one trick the party has up its sleeve should the contest become a problem. If it looks like Goldsmith might inadvertently win - and if Act is polling well above, say, 1% - National will be reluctant to allow such a situation to potentially produce a lot of wasted rightwing votes. It will pull Goldsmith so that voters of both left and right can't upset the Epsom arrangements. National has up to 26 August to make a decision.
Alternatively, National might be just as happy to change tack by reversing its endorsement of David Seymour, pushing Goldsmith to go hard for a victory, and allow Act to die.
Fight over foreign land sales
Some of the minnows are also fighting to show who can take the hardest line against foreign land sales. Interestingly, it was Colin Craig who pushed this issue back onto the election agenda with his revelation last week about the impending sale of the Lochinver Station to Shanghai Pengxin. As Isaac Davison reported, 'Craig's announcement that Conservatives would block foreign purchases of farmland or commercial blocks was a further bid for New Zealand First's centre-right voters. It was revealed at a Grey Power meeting, which is typically Mr Peter's home turf' - see: Craig slams Chinese bid for huge Taupo farm.
Off course, Winston Peters has quickly taken up the issue and pushed it further - see Adrien Taylor's Lochinver Station sale deal-breaker for Peters which reports 'Peters would block the sale of the Lochinver Station to a Chinese company, making the issue a deal-breaker for any potential coalition partners'.
For more on the details of Peters' hard line on this, see Tim Watkin's Winston Peters' line in the sand... or farmland. Watkin says, 'So New Zealand First will not go into ANY arrangement - presumably from coalition right down to supply and confidence - with National if it goes on doing this, ie selling farms. That's a pretty definitive line in the sand... or rather line in the paddock. It seems Peters and Craig might be about to try to out-tough each other on foreign ownership'.
Peters has now announced a policy of the government buying back 'strategically important farms sold to foreigners'. Peters says 'We'd use the Cullen Fund... We'd use the Kiwi Fund, which we're starting to ensure we got control of our assets back - see Brook Sabin's Govt gave Shanghai Pengxin conservation land.
It's not only the minor parties campaigning against such foreign investment. Labour has also become much more hard line, which can be seen in the 21-minute debate on TV3's The Nation: Grant Robertson and Steven Joyce on the wealth of the nation. The exchange was rather heated, leading Russell Brown to condemn Joyce's role in this - see: Steven Joyce: Prick or Treat. According to Producer Tim Watkin, Joyce's performance simply 'personified' National's discomfort over the issue - 'a topic that makes National decidedly uncomfortable because it's on the wrong side of public opinion on this one' - see: Winston Peters' line in the sand... or farmland.
Labour, too, could experience some discomfort on the issue if it continues to be labelled racist and xenophobic because of its populist stance. Today, deputy leader David Parker even commented on this, saying 'It is not racist or xenophobic to do so' - see TVNZ's Labour hits back at 'veiled accusations of racism'.
On The Standard, leftwing blogger Mike Smith also attacked the Government's stance on foreign investment, and linked this to other economic nationalist issues, such as the earlier decision for Kiwirail to purchase its rail wagons from China - see: Hang onto our land - it's all we've got left. In contrast, economist Paul Walker has blogged Xenophobia is not a good basis for economic policy.
Fight over race-based policy
The other major political issue that the three conservative minor parties are increasingly fighting over is 'race'. The Act Party leader Jamie Whyte's decision to campaign on so-called 'Maori privilege' has got many commentators suggesting that the party is trying to grab some of the populist vote off New Zealand First and the Conservatives - see Willie Jackson's column, It's 'race-card' time.
For other interesting analysis of Act's campaign, see Paul Little's Act's race card a vile play, Toby Manhire's Privilege debate guillotined by Act's French farce, Andrew Geddis' Colin and Jamie walked into a bar ... , and John Roughan's Whyte lacking a Maori viewpoint.
Finally, for the most cutting critique of Act's race politics, see Steve Braunias' Secret diary of Jamie Whyte.