Round and round went the Press Gallery's questions to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern this afternoon.
They asked whether her Deputy Prime Minister, Winston Peters's, actions in boasting of photographs showing journalists and their sources was ethical or appropriate.
• NZ First Foundation received tens of thousands of dollars from horse racing industry
• NZ First Foundation donor: 'I clearly believed I was helping NZ First get in'
• NZ First undeclared donations: Serious Fraud Office to investigate
• Winston Peters says donors are entitled to anonymity
Other than to criticise the blog where the photos appeared, she wouldn't be drawn.
It was a "matter for another political party", not for the government or party that she leads.
She was not going to be "judge and jury".
The matter was not discussed at the weekly Cabinet meeting, she said, because it was not a government issue, unlike the government's response to the coronavirus.
And so on.
Finally, one journalist asked the right question: is this issue undermining the coalition?
"No," said Ardern curtly, and moved on.
She does not believe that any more than any other person in the room.
Unless the Serious Fraud Office suddenly decides not to investigate the donations to the New Zealand First Foundation, the coalition is in the midst of a creeping crisis over which the Prime Minister is either unable or unwilling to exert her authority, or has a cunning plan to do so that will ultimately be revealed.
The sooner the better, if so.
At the moment, she is apparently so yolked to Peters and scared of his capacity to damage her government if she offers any more than the most tangential criticism, that she would rather stonewall and undermine her authority than be frank.
As a result, Peters is making her look weak.
That may be neither fair nor reasonable. Ardern makes a point of "doing politics differently" and the usual slap-down tactics that journalists try to extract from politicians are not her stock and trade.
But it doesn't alter the strong impression that she is unable to deal with her errant deputy, which leaders need to be able to do.
She is probably hoping for two things.
One: that the public will see the media grizzling about secret photography as pretty rich, since journalists like nothing better than revealing a secret, all the better if a zoom lens is involved.
If that is the dominant reaction, it will be just another example of the bit players in the Wellington bubble taking themselves too seriously – again.
And secondly: that we'll get sick of asking and the whole thing will blow over.
That could well happen, but it doesn't feel like it. Rather, it has so many echoes of Peters's mishandling of the $100,000 Owen Glenn donation in 2008, that Ardern must surely have a Plan B to distance herself.
At the very least, it is entirely appropriate for the Prime Minister to summon her ally and warn him that his actions are causing so much political damage that she will have to do something – however symbolic – to distance herself and express her displeasure.
That gives Peters the opportunity to negotiate what the action is, and to plan a reaction that won't fan the fire on the coalition's internal cohesion any further.
The NZ First Foundation issue will trundle along on its own track and is definitely NZ First's problem rather than Jacinda Ardern's.
However, if this NZ First issue plays into National's election year trope – that this is a weak, incompetent and indecisive government – the damage will be to the government as a whole.
An able Prime Minister would, at some stage, have to act against that.