Toby Manhire 's Opinion

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Election's shadow falling on halls of power

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Over the next 18 months, expect to see Key, and David Shearer, too, hovering outside Peters' office, bottle of Scotch in hand. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Over the next 18 months, expect to see Key, and David Shearer, too, hovering outside Peters' office, bottle of Scotch in hand. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Halftime. It's now almost exactly 18 months since the last election, since John Key began his victory speech with the unforgettable words, "It's been an awesome night." Which means it's also 18 months, in all probability, until the next ballot day.

And for better or worse, the three-year term means that just about everything in politics from here on is done with at least half an eye on that approaching day next November.

To put it another way, Prime Minister Key is halfway through his difficult second album. There is something distinctly second-termist about the succession of controversies to have befallen his government - among them the Dotcom case, the GCSB, Gilmore and the waiter, the GCSB again, the SkyCity deal, and most recently urgency abuse.

National will feel relief that their polling has held up so well, thanks in part to a sometimes woeful Labour opposition. But the specks of dust cluster over time.

The government strategy is uncomplicated. Bill English has his MPs incanting 400 times every night before bed, "On track to return to surplus in 2014-2015."

Key will keep on pressing the flesh. His popularity may have slid from the glory days, but he remains well out in front as preferred prime minister. As the election draws closer, speculation about his successor will grow. He's committed to fight the next election, but will he pledge to serve a full term if successful? Attentions will swivel to a likely choice of Judith Collins or Steven Joyce, already apparently jockeying for position. That speculation itself will only amplify factionalism within the party. Like all politicians, they won't be able to resist.

The biggest electoral story, however, will centre on coalition-making. If a Labour-Green marriage were in any doubt, their energy-policy lockstep confirms they are betrothed already. National's lampooning of the Greens, and Labour's fealty to them, will accordingly grow relentless.

In the last campaign, the prospect of a "teal deal", with the Greens propping up a National government, was floated. This time round, even if Russel Norman strains to keep the possibility alive in order to strengthen his hand in negotiations with Labour, no one will take it seriously.

For National, an examination of the, ahem, tea leaves, will produce a dismal set of possibilities.

There's Act, a party apparently performing a weird and protracted political kamikaze act.

There's Peter Dunne. But his chances of bringing in even one other United Future MP are about as likely as Gareth Morgan marrying his cat.

The Maori Party, meanwhile, are weaker than ever. At risk of having more leaders than MPs, the party gravely needs a boost of new energy - starting with Ikaroa-Rawhiti. What about Colin Craig's Conservative Party? Family-oriented, unspectacular, socially conservative: they seem in many ways the perfect parliamentary ally. And just look at the UK Independence Party. They're consistently polling over 15 per cent, riding a wave of anti-immigration, anti-European-Union and anti-gay-marriage sentiment.

Colin Craig is far from the brightest crayon in the box, as his pratfalls over a satirical article and this week's Twitter "hacking" fiasco demonstrate, but he has two more important attributes for a budding member of Parliament: determination and money. It's a safe bet he'll break out the piggy bank again to fund his campaign, this time with many more candidates in constituencies.

All the same, it's a long shot. When the National Party decided to chuck the MMP review in the fire, so leaving the threshold at 5 per cent rather than the recommended 4 per cent, the Conservatives' best hopes of entering Parliament might have burned up with it.

And that leaves New Zealand First. In February 2011, almost 10 months before the last election, John Key made it clear that he would not be playing footsie with Winston Peters.

"I don't see a place for a Winston Peters-led New Zealand First in a government that I lead," he said. "Historically, he has always been sacked by prime ministers. It's a very different style to mine and it's rearward-looking. I'm about tomorrow. I'm not about yesterday."

But that was yesterday's tomorrow. Such are the numbers that tomorrow's tomorrow will leave Key craning his neck in every direction. The co-operation between National and New Zealand First over the GCSB bill came quickly a cropper, but it is very likely a sign of efforts to come.

Pending some greater NZ First implosion than the Brendan Horan sacking or the Richard Prosser bilge, National and Labour will both have to work on the assumption the party will be returned to Parliament.

Over the next 18 months, expect to see Key, and David Shearer, too, hovering outside Peters' office, bottle of Scotch in hand.

The universe has one hell of a sense of humour. For who would have thought, halfway through the first Key government, when NZ First appeared cast forever into the political wilderness, that Winston might become the critical political figure in 2014?

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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