John Key's right-hand man made a secret visit to former Act leader Rodney Hide in a desperate search to shore up a coalition partner for the National Party at this year's election.
Sources say senior Cabinet minister Steven Joyce, the National Party's campaign chairman, visited Hide to persuade him to return to politics as Epsom MP and leader of the Act party - but this weekend, Hide has rebuffed him.
In a column today, Hide exclusively reveals that he gave serious consideration to calls from friends and supporters for him to return to the fray. But he has a new job, is moving to Christchurch, and he and his wife Louise have a baby due in July, their third.
The calls for his return came after current Act leader John Banks declared he was standing down this year, under the cloud of a prosecution over campaign donations from German IT millionaire Kim Dotcom and the SkyCity casino group.
National's other potential partners are in trouble too: both Maori Party leaders are retiring, United Future leader Peter Dunne resigned as a minister in a row over a leaked Government Communications Security Bureau report, and Conservatives leader Colin Craig is struggling to find a winnable electorate.
With 48 per cent of the vote in a Herald on Sunday-Key Research poll last month, the National Party is well ahead of Labour.
But Labour has the prospect of two or three coalition partners (the Greens, Mana and perhaps NZ First) which, combined, could give the centre-left more than half the seats in Parliament.
Supporters believe Hide, 57, can win Epsom as he has twice before and bring at least one or two more Act MPs back with him, enough to get a National-led government back over the line.
Joyce said yesterday: "I think it would be exaggerating it describing it as a personal approach. It was more of a case of, 'what are you up to?'
"It's up for Act, how they select their candidates," he added.
"In terms of my position as campaign chairman, we are obviously looking for strong potential coalition partners. I think we've got a range of options and the Prime Minister is going to talk more about those early this year."
Writing in today's column, Hide says he hopes an Act candidate can again win Epsom and support a National-led government, but, "I have concluded it can't be me".
"I have a project underway in Christchurch. It's keeping me busy. We have a third baby due in July. I have new and different challenges ahead," he says.
"I now don't have the necessary passion and enthusiasm to do the job well. Yes, I loved it and I gave it everything I had. And then some. But it's gone now."
Auckland councillor Cameron Brewer, seen by some as a future mayoral contender, also ruled himself out of Act's Epsom candidacy yesterday as he revealed he and his wife Kate have a baby due the same month as the Hides. "I've been re-elected for Orakei," he said.
"Kate and I are expecting a baby in July. It was nice to be asked, but it's something I won't be contemplating this year."
However, Matthew Hooton, a well-known right-wing pundit, is considering throwing his hat in the ring with Act candidacy contenders Jamie Whyte and David Seymour.
The 41-year-old commended Hide's decision. "In politics it never works looking backwards," he said.
"You must always look forwards. What is important is that there is a generational change in Act."
Hooton, once a National Party insider and former ministerial adviser, told the Herald on Sunday this weekend that John Key's administration was the "most interventionist government" since Robert Muldoon lost power in 1984.