John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Key's switch a necessary part of regaining control


It has taken the best part of a week, but huge cracks suddenly appeared yesterday in the wall of denial erected by the National Party to shield itself from the damaging allegations in Nicky Hager's book, Dirty Politics.

That was bound to happen. In resolutely defending the indefensible - especially when the indefensible is as well-documented as it is in Hager's book - John Key was not only starting to sound and look rather silly, but he risked eating into stocks of one of his most valuable commodities - the degree of trust he has built up with large portions of the electorate.

This particularly applies to large numbers of "soft" National supporters who would not give National the time of day without Key at the helm.

It will take only a small chunk of these voters to defect to Opposition parties for National to be in danger of losing the election.

The longer Key denied what was fact - especially the questions raised by Judith Collins' passing of the private details of a public servant to Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater - the more he risked sounding like he was treating voters like fools.

That all changed yesterday. Key's admonishing of Collins' actions as "unwise" was about as punishing as a slap across the wrist with the trusty old wet bus ticket.

But it was a mega-sized departure from the position he had previous adopted in defending his Justice Minister. It was reinforced by Bill English refusing to endorse Collins' modus operandi.

The question is whether the distancing of the Government's two most senior figures from Collins is sufficient to quell the political maelstrom provoked by the contents of Hager's book.

National claims its focus group research is showing the book's revelations are not registering with most voters.

There is also a view in the Beehive that Collins' collusion with Slater was always going to get special attention - like that accorded to the SIS's swift granting of an Official Information Act request made by Slater and the unauthorised delving around in Labour's computer database.

But National has finally woken up to the fact that Hager has one thing it does not - time.

He would happily argue with National for as long as National likes.

With National's advertising campaign starting today and the party's campaign launch scheduled for next Sunday, it knows it must regain control of the election agenda. So Key had little choice but to blink first in his stand-off with Hager.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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