The National Party is way out in front and in big trouble. John Key is going to win in eight days' time. It's possible, if unlikely, that he may not be able to form a government. But unless Kim Dotcom can produce documentary evidence on Monday night that Key is plotting chaos with Kim Jong-Un and Suzie the Waitress, he and National will collect by far the most votes of any party.

And if we assume that Team Key prevails again, backed by the familiar minnows plus one or both of NZ First and the Conservatives, what then? The mandate is one of status quo. The campaign slogan is Working for New Zealand: in effect, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Not for them the vision thing. Not for them the lofty, wafty Obamesque slogans. Forget the hopey-changey stuff. Team Key's mantra is more-of-the-samey. The campaign advertising almost literally urges: Don't rock the boat.

In the 2008 twilight of Helen Clark's premiership, then opposition leader John Key issued a press release - one of a number on the theme - headlined "Labour out of ideas on the economy". The same charge might be levelled at National today. What could be more underwhelming than the announcement of a modest tax cut, possibly, maybe, to be delivered in 30 months' time?

On The Nation on Saturday, Lisa Owen invited the Finance Minister five times to identify "one new idea to boost our economy". He couldn't do it. "We actually think," said Bill English, "we're going in the right direction." And while his steady hand on the tiller might be widely welcomed, there's something lacking in the navigation department.


In Wednesday night's leaders' debate, John Key regurgitated a phrase he'd belted out in both the previous debates: "We are on the cusp of something special." But never did he specify what that something special might be. Are we on the cusp of a purple patch for Beauden Barrett? On the cusp of an exciting new line of supermarket miniatures? On the cusp of a royal baby called John? Our cusp runneth over.

And then there's Dirty Politics. The polls deliver a resounding vindication of the National strategy to dismiss the accounts of party connections and collusions with attack-blogger Cameron Slater. But the worst damage for National may be yet to come. It is true that many predicted the Teapot Tapes episode before the 2011 election would hurt Key down the track, and that barely happened, but this is of a different order. Two inquiries resulting from the scandal are under way, and more are likely to follow, especially if Winston Peters has his way. Many who are more curious than obsessive will read the book over the summer.

Key remains hugely popular in the business sector, but even there many see the Dirty Politics expos as damaging. According to the Mood of the Boardroom survey published yesterday by the Herald, 62 per cent of chief executives believe "Brand Key has been damaged by the Nicky Hager revelations".

One transport sector CEO put it like this: "He seems to be too opportunistic, poll-driven and lacking courage to stand up for integrity and a vision of shaping the country." Even loyal National members privately concede it has done substantial harm.

If it's true that Key toyed with the idea of chucking in the job after the teapot tapes kerfuffle three years ago, as he told biographer John Roughan, then what impact might the Dirty Politics saga have on his appetite? Add to that the likely headache of having to rely upon one or both of Colin Craig and his Conservative jamboree, or Winston Peters, whose bottom lines appear to be drawn by MC Escher, and it's easy to see how Key might be plotting his own exit strategy. Either way, in a third term, the issue of succession, and potential for a post-Key vacuum, would inevitably become one of the staple storylines.

Key has acknowledged the importance of renewal in a party, and the astonishing sight of 15 National MPs walking the plank before this election is further evidence of the famous "smiling assassin" ruthless streak. Perhaps, if returned to power, he will be equally ruthless with the Cabinet, turfing out the old-timers for a new breed, in pursuit of a fresh wellspring of ideas. But that carries risks of its own, in the form of disaffected backbench big-beasts. Judith Collins alone could be a handful.

As has been shown repeatedly, to underestimate John Key is serious folly. He could be serious about doing a Holyoake. Dirty Politics could yet steel his resolve. And the capacity of the opposition to fluff its lines is obvious. But right now, scandal-worn, idea-poor and over-reliant on its leader, Team Key is already displaying the early and dangerous symptoms of third-termitis.