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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: No birthday best wishes for Peters

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Conservative Party leader Colin Craig. Photo / New Zealand Herald / Mark Mitchell
Conservative Party leader Colin Craig. Photo / New Zealand Herald / Mark Mitchell

Winston Peters was the one cutting the birthday cake. But someone else was plunging the knife.

You might have thought that even Peters' most hostile adversaries would have shown some grudging respect for the New Zealand First leader on the occasion of his party's 21st birthday.

There were no birthday good wishes flowing Peters way, however, from the Sudima hotel near Auckland airport where Colin Craig's Conservative party was holding its annual conference.

Quite the opposite.

Craig instead fired a number of biting salvoes in the direction of the function centre at the Alexandra Park raceway just a few kilometres away where the NZ First faithful were similarly conferencing at the very venue Peters used to launch his political vehicle just over two decades ago after he fell out with the National Party.

Peters might have cursed his luck that his party's conference had ended up being held on the same weekend as NZ First's chief competitor for the traditional conservative vote. But it was also an opportunity to remind his would-be usurper who is the boss.

The clash of pre-election timetables instantly set up the weekend for comparisons between long-time kingmaker and could-be kingmaker.

Unfortunately for Peters, the sight of the splendid birthday cake only underlined a brutal truth: Peters is approaching the twilight of his political career while Craig's has barely begun.

Not being someone who takes takes kindly to being upstaged, Peters came up with a clever response to the threat posed by Craig and his cohorts to NZ First retaining its longstanding grip on the votes of those on the centre-right who are disenchanted with National's moral liberalism.

He refused to rule out himself standing against Craig in East Coast Bays, the seat which Craig, though denying it, clearly hopes National will throw his way so that his party can accordingly coat-tail further MPs into Parliament on the back of a threshold-eradicating electorate victory.

That said and done, Peters then refused to answer any more questions at his Saturday morning press conference which had anything to do with Craig or the latter's party.

When it came to his afternoon appointment with the media, Craig had no such qualms about talking about Peters - and in pretty blistering fashion.

Craig was utterly dismissive of Peters' threat to stand against him if National pulled its candidate, the incumbent MP Murray McCully.

Craig doubted Peters would stand. He was not worried even if he did. But it would not happen because Peters would lose and losing was not something Peters could easily abide.

The Conservatives were aiming at becoming the fourth largest party behind National, Labour and the Greens.

"I think he realises we are closing in on him...he can do the maths...he realises he is number four..."

Then came the the unkindest cut of all.

"I'm getting pretty good turnouts at Grey Power meetings. Bigger than he is."

Despite Craig's confidence, Peters still has the upper hand in this tussle.

He can syphon votes off Labour as well as National - something that Craig's party, still struggling to shrug off the "Christian" tag, will find difficulty in doing.

Craig still has yet to get real "cut-through" in connecting with the provincial cities and towns where his party's emphasis on such traditional core "Kiwi values" such as hard work and family ought to strike a chord.

The conference was something of milestone for Craig's party.

There was no wackiness of the moon-landings-did-not-happen kind.

Craig instead stayed very much on message during the two (yes two) lengthy speeches he delivered on Saturday, along with a rapid-fire question and answer session during which he was only lost for a reply once. And then only for a second or two.

The questioner had asked what New Zealand should do about Israel and Gaza. Craig replied that when it came to foreign policy, New Zealand was too much of an international " busy body".

However, he knew one thing. If someone was shooting at him, he would be shooting right back. Even the party members and delegates present were a tad surprised by his answer.

It was classic Colin Craig - case of trying to target one audience, so to speak, at the risk of alienating a much, much bigger one.

Craig is also a man in a hurry, who in political terms, is seeking to run before her can walk. And sometimes his mouth engages before his brain.

But he is learning - and fast.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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