Fran O'Sullivan: Loose words sparking talk of hidden agenda

By Fran O'Sullivan

Labour is salivating. Until this week the party hierarchy must have thought the only event that could cost John Key the prime ministership would be a video shot of him in bed with a dead woman or a live man.

But Key should face facts. The National leader has been neatly stung by a political desperado either acting on his own or more likely with the connivance of Key's opponents.

Let's be clear, the desperado is not Key's deputy Bill English. There will be more chatter during the election campaign as National's opponents try to draw a link between him and the publication of emails that ended Don Brash's reign.

But the vexed relationship on show is between Key and English. The National leader clearly has a bit of a complex about his deputy, judging by the story that emerged after two journalistic confidantes, who went with Key on a social spree in the Capital earlier this year, let loose that Key expected English to attempt a coup some day, perhaps to wrestle the prime ministership away (assuming he gets there).

A choice confidence that would have left the journalists in no doubt the relationship between National's top duo is pragmatic at best.

It is Key's loose-lipped talk, coupled with the rather too frank comments that English sometimes makes about him, that would have persuaded his opponents that the deputy would be a rich candidate for entrapment. Who can forget his priceless "I'm a stayer, he's a sprinter. I grind away, John just bounces from one cloud to another"?

The English tape is a goldmine. His comments on Working for Families and Kiwibank have given Labour an opening to spin into proof positive that National has a hidden agenda which will result in cutbacks to the tax credits programme and the sale of Kiwibank if it takes office. Key and English had already helped create perceptions of a hidden agenda.

Key's revealing comment in the Weekend Herald's "Unauthorised Biography", where he admitted election policy was held within a tight circle _ "we just can't afford to have an organisation that leaks" _ played into that. So too, English's rather gormless responses when asked for details of economic policy.

But the more damaging factor is the public perception English has created of a less than unified leadership by suggesting Key _ a "nice man" _ doesn't completely understand Working for Families.

English could not have expected to be bugged. But unwittingly, or otherwise, he has broken a cardinal unwritten rule of politics _ don't provide ammunition to the opposition that can be used to destroy your party.

English's comments also reinforce the notion there is an ideological rift between the two _ English ultimately wanting to go further with a traditional conservative tax-cutting and privatisation agenda than Key, who has dampened his party's expectations to get into power.

In subsequent tapes, Lockwood Smith confesses to having to swallow "some bloody dead fish" to get into government. Nick Smith's even more anodyne comments would hardly have made the news bulletin unless they were judged by journalists to reinforce the hidden agenda claims.

The real problem is English conceded the leadership to Key without a fight. But they will need to show more discipline if they are to get into power.

The interesting question is whether the bugger who worked the floor at the cocktail party before National's annual conference managed to entrap a much bigger target _ Key himself _ into making an injudicious comment that will be trotted out during the heat of the upcoming election campaign. TV3's Duncan Garner indicates his source has said there are more tapes.

If Key hasn't done a mental spring-clean on this score he should start now.

When Helen Clark warned her MPs to "get their hard hats ready" for a dirtily fought election campaign, Key should have been on guard.

Labour was still smarting over the underhand fashion in which its president Mike Williams was stitched up by the subsequent release of videotape of imprudent comments he had made during a closed party session. They suggested he favoured using Government advertising to bolster the party's electoral chances.

So the prospect of somebody playing dirty tricks at National's conference should have been foreseen. Key will need to harden up.

If he wants to look at what real "dirty tricks" are he should cast his eyes on the United States presidential race, which is providing much more intrigue than any of the desperadoes have (so far) served up here.

Democratic vice-presidential hopeful John Edwards has been filmed at 2.30am in a hotel bedroom cuddling a small baby who the National Enquirer alleged is his "lovechild". Denials notwithstanding, the furore may be enough to cost him a shot at being Barack Obama's running mate.

- NZ Herald

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