If New Zealand First had polled as highly in 2017 as many of its candidates were told it would, Richard Prosser would be have been well into his third term as an MP when Covid-19 hit.
It didn't work out that way. So, as New Zealand waited out the lockdown, Prosser was parked up in the English countryside filling social media with claims that had former political colleagues blanch with horror.
"Lockdown was never about a virus that was never going to overwhelm health systems. Lockdown was always about control and power and money and forcing everyone to be under constant surveillance.
"Yes, it is a conspiracy. How could it be anything else? Wake up."
Prosser's online "Con-vid scam" posts brought relief from some that he had missed out. He had ranked high in previous years, appearing in NZ First's ranking at four (2011) and three (2014) before being ranking at 15 (2017).
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NZ First's vote of just 7 per cent in 2017 sealed Prosser's fate, well short of the 20 per cent many candidates believed was their due. Its nine MPs - along with Peters - are deputy leader Fletcher Tabuteau, Shane Jones, Ron Mark, Tracey Martin, Darroch Ball, Clayton Mitchell, Mark Patterson and Jenny Marcroft.
Although Prosser's gone, one of its new MPs - Otago beef and sheep farmer Patterson - is earning growing respect across Parliament, the latest wrong-footing from a party which has always produced surprises from its list.
Prosser is chasing conspiracies, Patterson keeps one foot in the farm while the other is in Parliament.
"The reality of the matter is he's gone," says party leader Winston Peters of Prosser. "Some people have no appreciation of the good fortune they have had to get near Parliament."
Is there the depth in the party? Prosser was at third place on the 2014 list.
"We've had people like that," says Peters. "Politics attracts people like that. We will have less of that in the future."
But why was Prosser there at all? Who did the party believe he spoke to?
The unifying thread, some former candidates say, is the votes they bring. Peters rejects the suggestion Prosser brought the fishing and hunting vote, yet recreational fishing lobbyists, who had a strong hand in the party's 2014 fishing policy, say he was the unifying force.
Patterson - the new kid on the block - dovetailed with NZ First's appeal to the provincial vote. It's the same question that bedevils every political party - where to find the votes and where to find the candidates who bring them in.
For NZ First, the answer has often been Peters and the blinding radiance he emits. It makes it hard to see past Peters to the structure on which he stands, both in terms of those MPs in Parliament and what they believe.
In the beginning...
The party was born of Peters' separation from the National Party in 1993 but its true parent was neo-liberalism and its adoption by the fourth Labour and National governments.
As the economy was unhitched from the state and left to the free market, it took with it much of the solid ground on which New Zealand had stood. Peters would hark back to when life was simpler - a seemingly impossible leap back in time.
That boosted profile saw Peters take NZ First into the 1993 election and come away with two seats - one in Tauranga and the other won by Tau Henare in Northern Māori.
The next 27 years were MMP elections. They have proved fertile ground for Peters. Only on one occasion has he failed to make it back to Parliament. When he has returned to Parliament, he has always brought others with him, at least four other MPs, at most 16 other MPs.
The party has also seen chaos and scandal. Usually Peters is in the midst of it and other times he has had to deal with mess created by his MPs. There has been beneficial scandal: The Winebox saga of the 1990s. Sometimes it has been destructive: The Owen Glenn donation scandal in 2008 that preceded the party's exit from Parliament.
It is currently immersed in fresh controversy. The Serious Fraud Office is closely examining the party's funding structure after documents emerged raising questions about the handling and spending of donations.
NZ First has been in government on three occasions - once with National and twice in coalition with Labour - but spent more time in Opposition than not. When serving as a Minister of the Crown, Peters has received mixed reviews - positive when he has been Foreign Minister and less so when Treasurer in the 1990s.
Power does little for NZ First's polling. Its first turn in coalition returned a poor result in 1999. In 2008, the end of the Fifth Labour government also saw the end of Peters' unbroken run in politics and a three-year hiatus.
This election had the makings of a perfect storm - a Serious Fraud Office investigation and a period in government over-shadowed by a popular Prime Minister.
Crisis brings opportunity, however, and Peters is currently doing what he does ahead of elections - clearing space between NZ First and the other parties, marking a point of difference. His calls to move to Covid-19 alert level 1 in contrast with the Prime Minister's voice of caution.
Peters is combative. Ask about succession and he says: "The reason we don't discuss the leadership of NZ First is because we have got a leader."
But who else - what else - is there?
Inside NZ First's list
The party fielded 60 candidates in the last election. One of those told the Herald on Sunday he was a documentary maker, who signed on as a candidate in an experiment in democracy. The candidate did not want to be named because of the potential to affect his business.
"I wanted to experience the process of what it is like to campaign," he said. His position was outside the top 20, so he felt confident he would not be elected.
"They could say they have 60 candidates so they are looking like they are a bigger party than they are. If you are interested, it's not a problem to be a candidate for any party if you are at an unachievable number."
Labour and National look for a pedigree with the party, he said. "You have to be a member for 10 years or more to be noticed … before they even start to recognise you as a real candidate for the party."
With NZ First, though, he said it was enough that he had signed up two years before the election and had the requisite donation of $1000 to the party and another $3000 or so for electorate billboards.
"In some ways, it is the party of opportunity. It is the easiest way to become a candidate."
Northcote candidate Kym Koloni had a similar experience. Her only contact with NZ First had been texting Ron Mark. He invited her to a party function and she thinks, although is not sure, that she signed up as a member. That was two years before the 2017 election.
For Koloni, that was it until four months before the 2017 election, when she decided she wanted to see what it was like to campaign in an election. "Everything they said resonated with me." There were only three electorates left without candidates. The Waikato-based businesswoman opted for Northcote because the other seats were too far to drive after recent back surgery.
Koloni met a party board member, then got approval of the Northcote committee. She was given a spreadsheet of members and set about ringing to organise a meeting to be selected. Some numbers worked, others didn't. "They don't keep very good records. The whole party was dysfunctional."
After being approved - unopposed - she had a meeting a national committee who sought assurance she would pay for electorate billboards and marketing.
It started going wrong when she saw the planned campaign advertising she was paying for - what she called an "anti-Auckland campaign" - and objected to it. That got her off-side with people, although not as much as her campaign speech, in which she said NZ First would get rid of the Treaty of Waitangi from the law.
It got national coverage. At the time, Peters said, "that's why she's ranked 38", while Prosser got in touch and told her she had got it more or less right, but should have said it was the Treaty principles that would be gone. The party dropped her fast, although her name still appeared on the ballot.
What do you expect, she asks. The candidates never had a manifesto. Instead, they were told to read Peters' speeches of the past six months. "I literally thought I had given the best speech I had as a candidate."
Koloni was back in the 2018 byelection though, this time as an independent candidate under a One Nation brand, pushing the slogans "drain the swamp" and "one people - one law".
Standing for the little guy
Far more positive about the experience, but not returning for another shot, was Waikato's Stu Husband.
Husband is now a regional councillor. "I feel my passion lies with local politics." He took a tilt at council for the same reason he stood as a NZ First candidate - an overwhelming desire to contribute to his community.
His involvement with the party dated back to 2012. He had wandered between Labour and National for years but with NZ First, "it pretty well aligned with me". Sure, Husband concedes, the party organisation might struggle and there were issues with how it ran the 2017 election.
Changes have been made and this time is sure to be different, he says.
"They're for the little guy. You get a shot with them. They are always battling for equality. I love that." Part-Māori, Husband says he believes "we are all Kiwis and we are all one".
He talks of the provinces as "the little guy". Places like Tokoroa that contribute to the nation's wealth - "what do they get in return - unmanned police stations, unmanned fire stations". "That's why I really aligned with NZ First - they were 100 per cent for getting the regions going."
He missed out. Placed 17 on the list, there was the hint of possibility when the polls crept upwards. At one stage, it looked like Peters would take 20 MPs in. "Then Jacinda came and it was all over."
But look at the result, says Husband. A capital gains tax was blocked by NZ First, and no water tax, police numbers up - big wins, and good for the regions, he says. "I'm pretty happy with what they've done."
Helensville's Helen Peterson - ranked 20 - spent almost a decade with the party and became a board member after just a year. "To be fair, there are very few people who want to be on the board. I saw presidents come and go and they were completely excluded."
Peterson also ran in three elections. "It was likely every other election. It was vague, it was disorganised."
After the 2017 election, she made three complaints to the party before quitting. The complaints include one that describes the party as "disorganised" and "hypocritical" in handling party business. It warns the party will remain a minor player "unless there is an enormous shift towards accountability, adherence to constitution and respect for its members".
The complaints raised issues with how the list of candidates was constructed. The party has always maintained the list was put together by a specific committee following clear rules.
The Herald on Sunday has interviewed NZ First electorate officials across the upper North Island who say they do not believe this. Peterson's complaints add her to those who do not have faith in the list process.
She will not stand for NZ First again but she is planning on standing for Parliament this year through the new Prosperity Party she helped set up.
"There is this huge pool of people in New Zealand who are lost and don't know where to go and where to put their vote."
Who votes? Who benefits?
The start of the campaign trail is just around the corner. Expect to see NZ First target rural communities. Shane Jones - whose appearance high on the list annoyed long-standing members - has already been out there, banging that drum.
Who else will the party speak to? Thames fisherman Rhys Smith, who helped Prosser write the party's fishing policy for the 2014 election, won't be listening. The policy leaned towards recreational but, he says, the party seems more aligned with commercial fishing now. He reckons the outdoors vote is gone for NZ First - a point on which Peters' disagrees.
The elderly? The Gold Card was long considered a stroke of genius by Peters, but that stereotype forged in the 1990s is no longer valid. The adoring older voters of those years are unlikely to still be casting votes now.
Immigration is an old favourite. With Covid-19, the issue is moot while our borders stay closed. Big business is seen to go National's way while the unions are part of Labour's red fabric. Peters aims to speak between the two with talk of adding value here in New Zealand - why send logs to China to be milled, when doing so shuts local sawmills.
The disaffected and angry who had lost faith to the left and the right drifted to the party for Peters the antagonist, the opposer, the fighter. They will have drifted away again after a term of Peters the establishment, the Government, the defender.
Who will vote for this party?
"It's a very good point," says Mark Patterson, the Otago farmer. "I think it's something we have got to define much better.
"The party is shaped in Winston's character and personality. We've obviously in future got to look at how we take that forward beyond him. That's a totally relevant question."
Patterson came from the National Party, but really, he came from a place that Peters recognises clearly because he's been speaking to it for years.
Patterson's farm is run by himself and wife Jude, who is also the local chief fire officer. It's not a corporate farm, as many are now, run from boardrooms.
A family farm - like many once were - it is in Lawrence, where the railway closed in 1968. It was here John J Woods composed the tune to our national anthem. It once had primary schools but now has an area school.
Peters knows Lawrence because he has spoken to its loss and the changes across New Zealand since the 1980s. Those words go back to his roots in rural Northland, where he rose early as a child to milk a neighbour's cows.
The echo of those words can be heard if you go to Whananaki and speak to his brother David, who talks of a society that didn't move so fast it left others behind. This is values speaking, not politics, and its the same message Peters often delivers. It's a message not manufactured by politics but one that suffers in the machinery and pragmatism of politics, as Peters works to keep NZ First alive, functional and relevant.
"I was in the front bench of the National Party," says Peters of entering government in 1990, led by Prime Minister Jim Bolger. Neo-liberalism was ""a disaster", he says, starting with Labour and the government he was in, set to continue it.
"That's not nostalgia. That's understanding the makeup of the nation's economy."
There was no need to throw our lot in so deeply, completely, to free-market policies, he says. There was development, innovation, manufacturing. Peters points to the Glaxo in GlaxoSmithKline - that was a New Zealand company.
There were other such companies that did similar work. "We lost it to the free market. Nowhere in the world was the free market trialled as it was in New Zealand."
Peters spoke in a similar vein when explaining the reasons NZ First went with Labour in 2017. Announcing the coalition agreement, he said: "Far too many New Zealanders have come to view today's capitalism not as their friend, but as their foe. And they are not all wrong.
"That is why we believe that capitalism must regain its responsible, its human, face."
Hence, $3 billion into the provinces. Areas ignored by successive governments suddenly seeing taxes return, with benefits.
Patterson talks, too, of wealth having accumulated too much with too few. The changes over almost 40 years of change have rewarded too few, at too much cost.
"We are starting to see a lot of inequalities."
Is it perhaps, after decades of picking issues, Peters will instead choose a vision? If so, it is a vision he has always held forth in a piecemeal way yet never quite collectively articulated.
And, principles aside, there is always Peters' knack for seeing a scandal six weeks out from the polls and using it as a springboard, hitting it just hard enough to rise above 5 per cent.