John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Trapped by the tape - Key losing control

Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It may only be temporary, but National's safety-first election campaign has been thrown seriously out of kilter as John Key stumbles from one tactical blunder to the next.

Yesterday's walkouts from his own press conferences were the latest clangers.

The Prime Minister's trademark pragmatism seems to have deserted him. He seems to have embarked on a Quixotic personal crusade to save New Zealand from the worst excesses of tabloid journalism.

The number of people taking part in that particular conversation would struggle to fill a telephone booth.

Everyone else has long shifted their focus to what was discussed at last Friday's meeting between Key and Act's Epsom candidate, former Cabinet minister and Auckland mayor John Banks. By brushing aside questions on that meeting and twice walking out on reporters, Key risks trashing his reputation for honesty and transparency.

He may not be trashing votes for National - yet. But many voters pulled National's way by Key's positive attributes will be having a serious bout of eyebrow-raising.

Key's abrupt ending of his press conferences looked like the pressure is getting to him. It made him look shifty and weak.

The puzzle is why someone who handled the Pike River mine disaster and the Christchurch earthquakes with aplomb is tripping up on something trivial in comparison.

There is clearly little by way of political dynamite in the tape that is not already in the public domain.

But having made the mistake of raising the question of media ethics and going to the police, Key is now hamstrung. He has hoist himself with his own petard and cannot credibly now agree to the tape and transcripts of the meeting being released.

But doing nothing is not an option either, as National's opponents will continue to feast on what has already emerged from the now-infamous cup-of-tea meeting.

Key may be gambling on the affair not having a huge impact on voter behaviour.

He may be right. But it is having a huge impact on National's campaign. Key is the focal point of that campaign. Questions about the meeting will keep coming.

National Party strategists have clearly been relying on the story running out of steam. Instead, it has continued to have a life of its own. What will really worry National is that for the first time in a long time, the party has lost control of events.

- 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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