You needed a torch to see what was going on in the Colin Craig vs Cameron Slater libel counterclaim held in courtroom 14 at the High Court of Auckland on Tuesday. The air was dark with the smoking ruins of a political party.
Craig's Conservative Party had once come close to power. But there was a sex scandal, which is to say there had been a scandal without anyone actually having sex, and the party's credibility went up in flames. The embers were poked and raked here and there on Tuesday by party officials who talked about the fire that consumed the Conservatives as a consequence of Craig's unholy lust for his press secretary, Rachel MacGregor.
It was pitiful. This is the way politics ends: not with a bang, but a sext.
The court heard how Craig tried putting out the fire with gasoline. He held endless press conferences and continually alluded to "inappropriate behaviour" with MacGregor. It drove the media into a frenzy, said Slater's lawyer, Brian Henry, who had an eventful day in court.
He poked a bear.
We know this because Justice Kit Toogood said to him: "You poked the bear." He meant Henry's handling of Bev Adair-Beets, who replaced MacGregor as Craig's press secretary, and who appeared in court as a witness against Slater. She made an immediate impression. She wore a red watchstrap and red nailpolish, and carried a red purse, a red laptop cover, and inside her red handbag was a ball of red wool.
Henry had asked her about MacGregor's personal view of Craig. Their relationship is central to the libel claim. Craig says Slater libelled him on the Whaleoil site; Slater says Craig libelled him in a booklet, with the rather unoriginal title Dirty Politics. Slater's blog posts had cast Craig as an obsessive, grubby sex pest; Craig hit back at Slater, and maintained that MacGregor and himself shared a beautiful but forbidden love.
Henry to Adair-Beets: "What do you have to say about Rachel MacGregor's tweet in which she wrote, 'Craig is trying to frame me as a mistress'?"
Adair-Beets, quietly: "I'm sorry she said that."
Henry, loudly: "Well, maybe she said that because it's her side of the story, but maybe you're so beholden and besotted with Mr Craig that you think it can't be right."
Adair-Beets, alarmed: "How can you use a word like that! What sort of statement is that! How could you - "
Henry, waving his small paws, attempting to interrupt: "No, you can't - "
His Honour, successfully interrupting: "No, Mr Henry. You poked the bear. Let her speak."
Adair-Beets, very loudly, also shakily: "Besotted! Good grief! If you knew anything about me and my background of abuse, you wouldn't throw words like that around!'
Her eyes were red behind her red-framed glasses.
She was followed in the witness stand by Laurence Day, who donated $675,000 to the party's 2014 election campaign. He described himself as a businessman and an investor.
As he gave evidence about Craig's conduct with MacGregor - the sext, the letters, the cards, the poetry - he surely heard all that money gurgling down the drain. Bad investment. Grand political hopes undone by ordinary lust.