National Party election strategists have made a fateful call against an accommodation with the Conservative Party of Colin Craig. On current polling, the Conservatives have about 2 per cent of the vote nationwide, enough to bring possibly three members into Parliament if one of them was to win an electorate. Now National's decision not to hand them an electorate means they could win up to 4.9 per cent and all of those votes would not count towards returning National to office.
John Key and his team would have weighed up the fact that even one seat won by a potential ally can make all the difference to an MMP election result. If Act had not won Epsom at the last election, the government would have been chosen by New Zealand First, the Maori Party and Peter Dunne, who could all have gone with Labour. The Conservatives, like Act, have nowhere else to go.
Spurned by National yesterday, Mr Craig raised the possibility of a post-election deal with Labour but it is not credible. His social conservatism is the polar opposite of Labour's beliefs on just about every issue. Clearly it is too much for National too, or at least for the middle ground of public opinion where Mr Key wants National to be.
National must have calculated, probably rightly, that to make room for Mr Craig in East Coast Bays would have cost National more votes than his support might be worth. The Government will have done intensive polling on the public view of a deal with Mr Craig, who has been advertising heavily for several weeks.
His pitch was one of independent populism rather than a declared preference for a National-led government, which may have been a strategic mistake. If he expected Government supporters in East Coast Bays to entrust him with their electorate vote he needed to make his intentions explicit. Instead, he has made binding referendums his defining issue and his fervour for holding the country to some of those referendum results makes him seem naive and reckless.
Now he can stop wondering what National might do for him and concentrate on winning at least 5 per cent of the vote nationwide. It is not beyond possibility. This will be a good election for small parties. Whenever one of the main parties is polling as low as Labour has been this time, some of its supporters give their votes to other parties in the hope of having more influence on the government. Winston Peters will be trying to harvest those dislocated Labour votes and he has complained that the Conservatives are copying his positions on many issues.
Looking to the long term, National needs the Conservatives to do well without its help. It needs another party on the right with a solid, reliable voting base, much as the Greens have established on the left. Act has failed to find such a base and has come to depend on National's concession of Epsom. NZ First is a right of centre party but it is based on its leader's personal appeal and will not survive him.
The Conservative Party does not have a founder with charisma, which might be to its ultimate good. At the birth of MMP a Christian Heritage Party found a constituency for moral conservatism that very nearly cleared the 5 per cent threshhold for seats.
If that constituency still exists, it might produce a surprise at this election.
Those voters might be disinclined to admit their intentions to polling companies but turn out religiously on polling day.
If Mr Craig can put his party in Parliament without National's help, it will be a greater achievement.
National has left him with that challenge, and might even encourage him from a safe distance.