John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Behind Key's cucumber cool, a man who knows he's in a pickle

John Key. Photo / NZ Herald
John Key. Photo / NZ Herald

Yesterday's question time in Parliament witnessed one of the severest grillings that John Key has faced from Opposition parties in his near five years as Prime Minister.

Not that you would have picked it from Key's seemingly relaxed demeanour while being peppered with questions about his office's role in the David Henry inquiry into the leaking of the report by Cabinet secretary Rebecca Kitteridge on the workings of the Government Communications Security Bureau.

Key was cucumber cool - just as he would have been back in the days when he was operating in the nerve-frazzling. high-pressure world of currency trading.

But behind the placid facade there were plenty of clues that he well understood the pickle he faced if he failed to reconcile emails which Opposition parties claim show Key's office was donkey-deep in efforts to seek the phone and other records of Andrea Vance, the journalist who was leaked the Kitteridge report.

Key's usual flow of wisecracks and putdowns during question-time had suddenly dried up. That was replaced by Key the Helpful as he explained why emails from his chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson, should not be interpreted as instructing the Parliamentary Service to submit Vance's phone records to the inquiry.

Key had to tread very carefully. He is on record as saying "when my chief of staff speaks to someone he speaks for me". Key also has no choice but to take similar responsibility for the Henry inquiry as he set it up. But he is refusing to take responsibility for Vance's phone records being sent to the inquiry by the Parliamentary Service or for Henry seeking swipe-card data on Vance's movements around the parliamentary complex.

Whether such distinctions of convenience will wash with the public remains to be seen. But the Opposition was certainly not fooled by the sudden change to Mr Nice. There were regular interjections of "he's lying" and "he's gone" from the Labour benches.

Labour's David Shearer and the Greens' Russel Norman seized on one email in particular. It said the Henry inquiry was interested in "any contact" between ministers' landlines and Vance's landline, parliamentary extension and mobile number.

But Key noted the inquiry had later emailed the service to say it had not sought records of "all calls' between "the phone numbers of interest".

In the end it was stalemate. The Opposition parties failed to land the requisite king-hit. Key had a real struggle to sound convincing.

It now rests on Parliament's privileges committee to do what it has promised to do - establish the facts of what actually happened.

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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