Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: The downfall of John Key

Prime minister John Key and blogger Cameron Slater.
Prime minister John Key and blogger Cameron Slater.

Why does John Key continue to stay close to Cameron Slater? And will this decision ultimately lead to Key's downfall? These questions have been repeatedly asked in recent days about the resurgent Dirty Politics scandal.

The damaging connection between the PM and blogger has rocked the National Government over the last week, with numerous political commentators pronouncing that the furore over John Key's alleged lying about being in contact with Slater has been Key's most damaging episode since coming to power.

John Key's fear of Cameron Slater

Today Matthew Hooton shed some light on why Key keeps in close contact with the apparently toxic Slater. Talking on Radio NZ's Nine-to-Noon he argued that Key is making a perfectly logical choice to try to stay in Slater's good books out of fear of what could happen if Slater became his enemy. If Slater and Key fell out then the blogger could go nuclear, dishing the ultimate dirt on Dirty Politics, according to Hooton.

Here's what he said: Key 'risks Cameron Slater going off the deep-end essentially, and revealing the full extent of his relationship with the Prime Minister himself, the Prime Minister's Office, with a number of John Key's ministers, with a fair bunch of the backbenchers, and with some senior party officials'.

Key might not survive that - listen to the RNZ 23-minute interview here.

It seems that having utilised the services of Slater, the National Government is now unable to simply walk away from him. That would be too dangerous. Slater would not take kindly to be disposed of. Partly this could be because Slater is rather unpredictable and inclined to lash out at his opponents (or those betraying him).

Today, ex-British Labour MP Bryan Gould blogs to explain the power of Slater over Key: 'Slater has little to fear if the whole sordid story comes out. It would simply confirm the centrality of his role and would confirm an image of ruthlessness he has sought to cultivate.

But for John Key, it is imperative that the story stays under wraps. One word from Slater, in other words - and the Prime Minister is history. Slater holds John Key's place in that history in the palm of his hand. If Slater calls the Prime Minister, of course that frightened man will jump to it. He will even run the risk of discussing a leaked Inspector General's report with him - and then trying to bluster his way out of admitting that he had done so.

So, what seemed to be a mystery becomes a much more worrying truth. We have a Prime Minister who is not only careless with the truth but who is obliged, for fear of being exposed, to do the bidding of the nastiest and least principled person in New Zealand politics' - see: Supping with the Devil.

For Stacey Kirk, the metaphor is of a dangerous dog that needs to be placated: 'So why did Key not cut ties with Slater the day Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics was dropped? Because like a frothing doberman hitched to a rusty chain on dodgy hinges, after too much snapping at the air Slater invariably finds himself breaking loose. It might be unpredictable when Slater chooses to shake his leash, but it's not exactly unpredictable that he does (if it was ever really on to begin with). It's certainly unpredictable what dirt he'll decide to kick around, and Key may well be worried that mud will stick to him' - see: How is John Key going to spin this one?.

Nonetheless, Kirk's advice to Key is to ditch Slater: 'Key has never condemned the actions of Slater. Not when Slater mercilessly attacked a Pike River family who lost their fourth child in the aforementioned car crash. Not when he (by his own admission) invented statements and cost a senior Cabinet Minister her job. Not even after it emerged that with the help of a member of the Prime Minister's staff, Slater mounted vicious and prolonged attacks on political opponents for Key's gain, but apparently without his knowledge. So there's a start. While he's at it, he might publicly confirm that he's asked Slater to stop texting him, and never reply when he does'.

See also TV3's 'Txtg8' controversy enters second week and the Herald's John Key to stay in touch with Cameron Slater.

Could Dirty Politics really bring about John Key's downfall?

The conventional wisdom amongst political commentators is that Dirty Politics and its related scandals are unlikely to fatally harm the John Key National Government. Commentators and journalists have been clear about their own outrage about the details, and that of opposition politicians, but assert that the byzantine scandal simply isn't understood or cared about by the wider public.

John Armstrong's latest column epitomises this approach, with a scathing assessment of John Key's orientation to the debate about Dirty Politics, but pointing out that 'As yet, there is nothing tangible to suggest the Prime Minister's reputation has suffered damage where it really matters - in Voterland - see: Outrageous behaviour leaves Key on the edge.

But Armstrong concludes his must-read column with a warning to Key that such assumptions shouldn't be relied upon: "Key's popularity may conversely make him think he can take liberties that she could not. But the worm can turn. And sometimes before a politician even realises it. Key would be wise to assume he is not exempt".

Duncan Garner is also full of warnings about the threat of impending doom for John Key and his government: "Yes, there are those that say this doesn't matter. And Key's relying on that - and his enormous popularity - to get through this. It might even work. But honesty and integrity actually do matter in politics. Claiming this latest incident is a storm in a tea cup is a cop-out and those saying it are largely Key sycophants. I remember Helen Clark playing fast and loose with the truth, too... Clark became smug and arrogant and now Key must be careful he doesn't fall into the same trap" - see: Creeping arrogance and deceit is no way to run the country.

See also Garner's blog post, This time it doesn't wash, Prime Minister. He argues that for the Key-public relationship, this latest incident 'may well be the turning point'.

Matthew Hooton has also argued in his latest NBR column that challenges to politicians' integrity, together with out-of-control arrogance, can be critically damaging for governments: 'Part of Mr Key's defence this week is that his government has done nothing worse than Ms Clark's in her third term. It does Mr Key no credit at all to say that the standards he now applies to his government are those of the corrupt third-term Clark regime that we finally chucked out in 2008' - see: Key descending to Clark's third-term depths (paywalled). Hooton asserts that 'No one who has closely observed this week's events will ever trust John Key's word again'.

But a downfall could take a whlle, according to Bill Ralston, who writes this week in the Listener that 'Labour's Grant Robertson explained to me that the "gotcha" was like water on a stone, gradually eroding the credibility of John Key. If he's right, the process of erosion is more like continental drift - it takes a few million years to occur' - see: Get real (paywalled).

Ralston emphasises that the public are more interested in political issues that have direct impacts on their lives: 'The trouble is, aside from the denizens of Twitter and talkback radio, few people genuinely care about these kinds of issues. Most, instead, are worried about their jobs, their wages, their families, their mortgage or some other pressing issue closer to home than the cloak-and-dagger world of politics and spying'.

Also in the latest Listener, Jane Clifton puts forward a similar argument: 'The only reason it's not electorally disastrous for him to have been exposed to a charge of tacitly licensing black ops by his office against an opponent is that, like so many of these situations, it's complicated without being a back-pocket issue (and the next election is three years away). Like much of the Dirty Politics fodder, this sort of malfeasance doesn't rate as a mainstream heartland concern. As poll analysis shows, people expect politicians, including their beloved Key, to fudge and even lie' - see: In the thick of it (paywalled).

Cartoonists can also be useful bellwethers of public opinion, being highly attuned to what will resonate with the public. Therefore it's worth noting that satirists are currently busy publishing scathing Dirty Politics cartoons - for the very latest see my updated compilation blog post, More Dirty Politics cartoons and images. The cartoon at the top of this post, by Tom Scott, is particularly useful in explaining Key's ongoing relationship with Slater.

Blogger Danyl Mclauchlan admits that Key might have good reason to assume that voters just don't care about this stuff, but also wonders if the post-election environment might be more conducive to Key's downfall over Dirty Politics: 'On the other hand, the post-election environment is very different. There's no prospect of a Kim Dotcom/Hone Harawira brokered coalition government. There's no Cunliffe. There's an unexpectedly effective Labour leader. The allegations are coming from his own Inspector General of Intelligence instead of a polarising figure like Nicky Hager. I don't see how Key can know the public will back him on all of this. It seems like a huge risk' - see: Armchair psychoanalysis of the day.

Mclauchlan also draws some parallels with the conditions that brought about the downfall of Helen Clark's government, suggesting that Dirty Politics could be less 'beltway' than assumed: 'I've been reading back through media coverage of the 2008 election campaign, and it's amazing how "beltway" National's attacks were. Winston Peters' donation scandal and the Electoral Finance Act were their big, big issues for the whole election campaign. There was policy stuff (tax cuts) but that was more peripheral. Voters might not have cared about the technical minutiae, but they cared that people in the government were acting unethically and lying to them'.

Damage to John Key's reputation amongst business leaders is already occurring according to business writer Fran O'Sullivan who reports from attending a business leaders' event, that there are real worries: What surprised me was that the first question on the lips of leading company chairmen and chief executives was "What's up with Key?" Their expectation was that the Prime Minister would have learned his lessons from the Dirty Politics affair. That Key - and his Government - would have realised by how close they were to losing public confidence through the revelations in Nicky Hager's book' - see: Key's choice: bloggers or business community.

The consensus is that Key is likely to survive in the short-term. However his reputation is undoubtedly damaged and he could end up being remembered as the "The Prime Minister who lies". So although he won the recent election, he appears to be losing the post-election.

See also, Chris Ford's blog post, Dirty Politics: Like Watergate a slow burning issue.

Would Cameron Slater really be willing to bring John Key down?

Although dismissed as irrelevant and an irritation by many, Cameron Slater obviously continues to wield much power on the right of politics. Not only does he appear to have leverage over the Prime Minister, he's demonstrated a willingness to go rogue if he wants. Slater is a precarious timebomb for National, which is why they treat him with care.

Slater has also been very clear about his unhappiness with the Prime Minister at times - especially over the way Key has dealt with Dirty Politics and the dismissal of Judith Collins. He is particularly sensitive when John Key makes the tiniest slight towards him. For example, a month ago Slater spoke out on his blog when Key appeared to be trying to distance himself: 'I wonder if John Key has miraculously found those TXTs? He can always call me and I'll read them back to him. Impertinent questions: - If Key phones me in his capacity as National Party leader, but I understand him to be talking to me as Prime Minister, what does that mean down the line? - If Key communicates with me, do these communications have any expectation of privacy? Does the simple fact he is the Prime Minister trump privacy and he now has to own up everything that was communicated to anyone who asks him in the right way in the right forum?' - see Slater's blog post, Of course National's politics are dirty - who is Key trying to kid?.

Similarly, after John Roughan issued his updated biography of Key, which outlined more about the dismissal of Judith Collins, Slater blogged that he was restraining himself from dishing the dirt on the PM: 'You, my readers, have made it very clear you don't want me to place my friendships above the needs of the country. It doesn't appear that John Key has these concerns personally. Because even if I can restrain myself (as I am doing right now), I can assure you that other ministers will be seeing that and wondering which of their private conversations will end up in Key's next memoir update' - see Slater's post, John Key doesn't care much about privacy, that much is clear.

In another recent post (SSC boss backs Collins view, Key starting to look silly now), Slater said this: 'This shabby little hit will only end up splattering egg on john Key's face. Perhaps he might like to start by telling the truth about when his office actually received the email'.

What about the other players in Dirty Politics? Jason Ede continues to be elusive, but TV3's Campbell Live had a go at trying to find him, and also carried out an interesting interview with Slater - watch the six-minute item, Where are the Dirty Politics stars now?

Bill English continues to distance himself from the Whaleoil blogger - watch his TV3 interview, or see the NBR's 'I don't like the guy' - English on Slater.

One of Slater's allegedly Dirty Politics colleagues, Carrick Graham, talks further about his role as a 'practitioner of the dark arts of public relations' in Bevan Hurley's PR guru still ready to shoot from lip.

Finally, for some quality Dirty Politics satire see Steve Braunias' The secret diary of John Key, Scott Yorke's The Labour Party plot to kill Cameron Slater: the shocking evidence, Andrew Gunn's How to dodge a grilling, and Toby Manhire's Mad as a hatter on multi-tasking.

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Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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