Key Points:

For all his tens of millions, John Key's initial steps on the New Zealand political stage were humble ones.

His first campaign manager was a West Auckland nurse and their headquarters was her dining room table.

Ambition had driven him to enter politics but having made the decision to leave his corporate career, he faced the grind of earning a seat in Parliament. So impressed by his credentials were National Party officials that Key could have pressed for a list spot. But he was more shrewd than that.

In the 2002 election, the tide was definitely going out on National and there were no guarantees anyone on the list would make it. And, besides, think how it would have looked: a multi-millionaire swoops back into the country from overseas and swans into Parliament. He was smarter than that.

He was prepared to fight. And what a fight he had.

The battle to win the National candidacy for the Helensville electorate has gone down as one of the messiest scraps in the party's history. In the process, long-serving MP Brian Neeson was cast aside, loyal party members felt they were ridden over roughshod, and there were accusations of rule-breaking.

What really happened when Key won the West?

By late 2001, Key had made his decision to run for Parliament; it was just a question of how. He was still working at investment bank Merrill Lynch, but had been talking to National officials about wanting to have a serious tilt at entering Parliament in the 2002 elections.

One of the people he had regularly spoken to was northern regional chairman Scott Simpson, whom Key would ring to talk through his options. "He'd ring on the cellphone and say, 'Hi, it's John here. I just want to run something past you,' and then he would talk non-stop for the next 10 or 15 minutes and just be going through every possible permutation that existed," says Simpson.

"It wasn't until the second or third call I realised, 'He doesn't actually want any input from me; I was just a sounding board'."

Key ruled out taking a list position - a wise decision, given what happened: Allan Peachey and Guy Salmon were among the high-profile list hopefuls who didn't make it in 2002 - and so turned to what seat he might contest.

Simpson says he briefly considered looking outside of Auckland but for family reasons decided against that. Among the seats Key looked at was Tamaki, held by sitting MP Clem Simich. Party officials convinced him it wasn't a wise move because Simich had a strong electorate network.

In October 2001, Key flew into Auckland from Sydney for a meeting which would determine his path. Simpson had suggested to Beverley Revell, a registered nurse who was the deputy regional chair and Neeson's former electorate chairwoman, that she meet Key.

The Helensville electorate had been created through boundary changes to the adjacent Waitakere seat, where Neeson was MP. The new seat was a more blue-ribbon patch. Revell had been Neeson's electorate chairwoman, but the pair had fallen out several months earlier over internal party matters.

Revell and Key met at a cafe in an Orakei garden centre.

"We had a bit of a discussion and he expressed his desire to become involved in politics and to return to New Zealand," recalls Revell. She had seen Key speak at a party conference before but this was her first face-to-face meeting with him. She left impressed with what she believed was his sincerity and down-to-earth approach.

He certainly can't have tried to overwhelm her with his wealth at the meeting: Revell came home and told her husband she thought Key worked in advertising. It wasn't until she said that he worked for Merrill Lynch that her husband told her how much Key was probably worth.

Revell went straight from the meeting to the party's northern regional office and told them that if there was going to be a challenge in Helensville, she wanted Key to run. "I really thought, 'If we are going to make changes' - and there had already been discussions around candidates - 'I really like John Key'.

"It's not easy setting up a challenge against a sitting MP. There has to be an awful lot of planning, there's a lot of politics involved. But I knew that there was a push from higher up [in the party] to have some changes. I knew West Auckland was likely.

"If there was, I didn't really want to be involved in something that was going to go through the motions. I wanted it to be a serious challenge with a serious contender."

In Key, Revell believed she had found her contender.

She took control of running his campaign, delaying confirmation of his candidacy until the last minute to keep Neeson guessing. If nothing else, it was going to be a tactical fight.

For Key's part, this was the realisation of four years of effort. He had first made contact with National in 1998, thanks to his sister, Liz Cave. She worked as a receptionist at Christchurch firm Lane Walker Rudkin, where then-National Party president John Slater used to make sales calls for his textile business. One day, Cave mentioned to Slater that her brother was interested in returning to New Zealand. Slater gave her his number and told her to get Key to ring, which he duly did.

Slater invited Key to a traditional New Year's brunch he held at his Pauanui holiday home in the first days of 1999. Key made an immediate impression, arriving with a bottle of Stonyridge Larose (recommended price $200). Slater still has the bottle: "I think we might crack it open on election night," he says.

About 30 party people were there, including officials and some MPs, Maurice Williamson, Katherine O'Regan and Warren Kyd among them. Slater was immediately impressed with him, admiring his personality, and his lack of airs and graces, and finding him easy to get along with.

Slater enrolled Key in the Epsom electorate (because he owned a property in St Stephens Ave, Parnell) after Key contributed $1000 as a membership sub to the branch. "And the rest is history," says Slater.

The party was keen on him running in 1999 to fill stocks depleted by the retirements of several finance heavyweights, including Birch.

"What I was doing was setting the scene for this guy to emerge and it was disappointing he didn't feature in 1999," says Slater. Key told the party he was unable to unshackle himself from his commitments to Merrill Lynch, a point which Slater admired. "He was a man prepared to stick to his word."

With 1999 not working out, the party was still keen to court this young talent. A meeting was arranged with former Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, and Key visited the Opposition office in Parliament Buildings that he would one day occupy himself.

In May 2001, Key made his first speech on the political stage, addressing a regional conference at Auckland's Waipuna Lodge before a crowd of about 250 people. Slater liked the content (Key spoke about New Zealand's place in the international scene), but felt the delivery was unpolished. "His really true character didn't come through," says Slater.

At this point, Slater himself got the shove, losing a ding-dong internal party presidential battle to the PR consultant Michelle Boag, who made it her mission to clean out the "dead-wood".

One of her targets was Neeson. Over the years, Neeson has declined to talk about being dumped by his own party, but he did agree to speak for this project. He has preferred to move on in his life and says he is not bitter about what happened. He says he holds nothing personally against Key and wishes him well. But he believes he was targeted by the party hierarchy and Key was a pawn in a much larger game.

Neeson became aware that some people from within his electorate had turned against him and that he was being lined up to be bowled. The boundary changes meant Helensville would be a very "blue blood" seat and people inside the party whom Neeson didn't see eye-to-eye with were keen that he not get his hands on it.

"They were saying, 'This is a blue seat; this isn't a Neeson seat," he says.

Anticipating the ambush, he and his wife Vanessa worked hard to build up the membership to secure as many delegates as they could from the electorate. Under party rules, 60 delegates were to be chosen to select the candidate. If an electorate had 900 members on its books eligible to be delegates, the 60 delegates would all be chosen from the electorate's ranks. If it had less than 900, it was only entitled to a proportion of the delegates.

In Helensville's case, the Neesons' efforts meant the electorate was entitled to 42 delegates.

Under those circumstances, the regional chairperson was responsible for arranging "top-ups". Neeson's supporters claim they were told that the party was hand-picking the "top-ups", allegedly a breach of party rules at the time which stated: "Such additional appointees shall be party members within the electorate concerned where possible but may be drawn from outside the electorate."

Of the "top-ups" six came from within the electorate, and 12 were from outside.

The selection of the delegates was not the only bit of skulduggery alleged by Neeson's supporters. On the day of the candidate selection meeting on March 17, 2002, it is alleged that the start of the meeting was delayed by more than 20 minutes so that a delegate known to be supportive of Key could make it for the vote; normally, the doors to the meeting were locked after 10 minutes.

Simpson has never publicly dealt with the allegations, but when interviewed for this project answered them.

As to the charge that he hand-picked the top-ups, he said: "They were chosen by me personally and they were people I felt had the interests of the party at heart. I recall inviting a number of electorate chairs from neighbouring electorates, party officers from around the region. Those types of people and that's not uncommon."

So they were hand-picked? "Well, that's what the rule required me to do actually. The rule doesn't provide for any other process."

Regarding the door being left open, he said: "I recall that there was one delegate who had phoned 10 or 15 minutes before arrival and said they had been delayed and would be late and was that a problem. We got around that by delaying the meeting's start by five minutes, then I did an introduction, then I saw the delegate arrive and then proceeded in the normal way."

In the event, Key won the ballot by 32-28. He had secured the support of not only the "hand-picked" delegates but had turned enough of the existing delegates too.

Revell says Key achieved this through sheer hard work, contacting every one of the delegates and meeting all of those who were interested in seeing him. Some he saw more than once. "We didn't have cottage meetings," says Revell. "He met each and every one of them individually."

Key's approach even impressed the man Neeson had asked to replace Revell as his electorate chairperson. Mate Milich, who had recently sold his business and had a long association with the party, came in to help out Neeson. He remains deeply unimpressed with some of the tactics used by party hierarchy to try to engineer the process. Party rules were breached through the selection process, he says, and he often fought to make sure the book was followed.

Sometimes, though, he deferred because it was not worth the argument. The late start to the selection meeting was an example. "The meeting was supposed to kick-off at 7.30 or 8 o'clock and it was held open," says Milich.

"He was held up for some reason and he was a town ring-in. I could have turned around and said, 'He wasn't present. Too bad', and that would have caused an argument. At that point, though, it would have been very embarrassing for a lot of people to fight over it - you have 60 delegates there, plus MPs, plus dignitaries. It wouldn't have been a good look."

Milich remains impressed by Key. "Any guy who has come from a state house, has educated himself and made money has got to have a brain. John is a very clever man and has the memory of an elephant."

After winning the candidacy, Key asked Milich to stay on as chairman, an invitation he turned down because he and his wife were heading off overseas for an extended holiday. But before Milich left, he told Key he would help him out any way he could.

"You don't know where to get billboards from, do you?" Key asked.

"Yeah, we'll make them. Come around," said Milich.

For a man who, by his own admission, doesn't have a handyman bone in his body, it was a galling proposition for Key.

Nevertheless, Key turned up with his son Max and spent the day with Milich, hammering and nailing together billboard frames.

"I had a lot of respect for him after that day," says Milich.