Matt McCarten: All you wanted to know about John Key but were afraid to ask

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Labour's gloves are off when facing John Key, the pretender to Helen Clark's throne. Up to now, there has seemed no end to Key's honeymoon. Labour has obviously realised the only way to pull back National's breathtaking opinion poll lead is to kneecap Key by raising doubts about his integrity.

One slip of the tongue by Key a couple of weeks ago at the National Party Conference was enough for the Labour front bench to launch a blistering attack on him in Parliament.

It's not often we see such vitriolic and relentless barracking of an individual. Obviously, the Labour nerds in their research unit have been pouring over Key's every utterance and action and have found a few inconsistencies.

Polite society may have been tut-tutting over Labour's behaviour but it has been devastatingly effective. Key, probably for the first time, was clearly out of his depth when confronting this onslaught.

He has been getting away with portraying himself as an honest and generally down-to-earth middle New Zealand family man. But he was flustered and embarrassed when Labour exposed his contradictory positions over Iraq.

He sounded very prime ministerial recently when he announced that, as our country's leader, he would have taken a similar position to Clark and not sent troops to Iraq.

But in 2003, as a newly elected MP, he boasted that National would indeed be sending troops to Iraq, in defiance of the United Nations.

At that time, Key attacked Labour's disloyalty to the United States and proudly offered to send our young men and women in uniform as part of Bush's invasion of an innocent and defenceless people.

He got rather carried away, espousing all sorts of nonsense, including that blood was thicker than water when it came to supporting the United States over the United Nations.

It sounded like the silliness of New Zealand's politicians of old when they got us into the Boer War and World War I.

Labour was quite right to point this out - given that if Key had been Prime Minister at the time, he would be looking rather sick now if sons and daughters of New Zealand families were coming home in body bags.

We should be unnerved that Key would forget such an important contradiction between his two positions on something so important. It's either hypocrisy and opportunism or he's got a very bad memory.

Whatever it is, Labour's attack was effective. It followed up with another attack on Key when he expressed concern about providing more housing for poor people and freeing up more land for it. It was pointed out that his Parnell home is built across two, if not three, sections. This raised a more embarrassing point - he was claiming to live at three different addresses for business, parliamentary and campaign purposes.

The last MP who claimed to live in more than one property for similar reasons was Phillida Bunkle, who Clark sacked after a public outcry.

Labour is clearly hitting its mark. National was therefore taking pre-emptive action last week to protect its leader. Key's confessions over the past week of attending a strip club and being interviewed by the Serious Fraud Office are all intended to blunt Labour's future character assassinations.

The strip club confession was unfortunate timing on the back of the rather sordid story of Kevin Rudd, Australia's Labor leader, being outed for his antics in a club on taxpayers' money.

Fortunately for Key, the tacky polling by the NZ Herald of other MPs minimised the political damage, as more than half the MPs admitted to frequenting such joints.

Helen Clark got in a good swipe when she haughtily sniffed that she didn't think it was appropriate entertainment for a politician. Although, a conservative friend of mine wryly commented that it was a bit rich of Clark to frown upon frequenting sex clubs when it was her Government that decriminalised prostitution and liberalised sex laws in the first place.

I'm sure Key isn't a frequent visitor to strip clubs nor guilty of any serious unethical business behaviour. But what is now clear is that, if he has made any mistakes or done anything dodgy in his past, they will be publicised widely before the election.

I don't think any of these revelations will damage his poll ratings or those of his party. They are likely to remain untouched for now.

However, it is clear that the Labour Party is after him and its attack will be relentless. Clark and her front bench have destroyed Don Brash, Bill English and Jenny Shipley.

Key will be harder. Labour knows that its has to damage Key's personal integrity and ethics before it can defeat him politically.

With the closing policy gap between the two parties, there will be a complete focus on the characters of the two leaders. The fortunes of the two major parties rest on them.

Labour will be confident Clark can maintain such scrutiny.

What Labour will hope is that enough question marks are raised about Key to cast doubts about him and so damage his party.

It seems politics in New Zealand is going to be personal, vicious and negative over the next 12 months.

It won't be pretty and by the end of it there won't be much that we don't know about Clark and Key. I hope we can bear it.

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