It is a time-honoured tactic for the Opposition. Identify the weakest link on the other side and target them remorselessly. It is a bit like unravelling a jersey - find the loose string and pull it till the whole thing disintegrates. When in Opposition, National were merciless. Labour ministers including Marian Hobbs, Parekura Horomia and Judith Tizard were all made to look like fools at Question Time. Mark Burton also had his moments under the forensic probing of Bill English during the Electoral Finance Bill, to the point Annette King was drafted in to replace him.
Since National went into Government, Labour has tried to reciprocate in kind but has misfired. Attempts to kneecap Paula Bennett and Anne Tolley failed as Labour belatedly discovered they had underestimated them. Labour came closer with Hekia Parata but couldn't quite drive it home. Now they can clearly smell the scent of fear on a new herd straggler: Corrections Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga.
Lotu-Iiga had the misfortune of a big scandal breaking in his portfolio in his very first days in the job: the flight to Brazil of Philip John Smith.
Lotu-Iiga struggled to front on it in the heat of the moment. Brushing it off as an operational matter was never going to take him far as revelation followed revelation on Smith's escape and the ways he maximised his income, courtesy of the taxpayer, from behind bars.
Since then, Labour's Kris Faafoi and Kelvin Davis and NZ First's Ron Mark have targeted Lotu-Iiga with that Trojan horse of a question: Whether he stands by all his statements.
It leaves the minister to anticipate what particular statements he will be grilled about. Lotu-Iiga had clearly anticipated being asked about Smith. He had a go-to answer - to say Corrections would implement all 13 recommendations from its inquiry. If that failed, his second go-to answer was to say a further "cross-agency" inquiry was still under way and all would be clear when that was reported back.
But Faafoi threw him a curve ball. Faafoi didn't ask about any statement he had made. Rather, he asked about why Lotu-Iiga had not made a statement at all. The issue Lotu-Iiga had not made a statement about was prisoner assaults at Mt Eden Prison. "Why does the minister stand by his decision to not make a statement?" Faafoi asked.
It was all too much for Lotu-Iiga. He spluttered about ridiculous questions before finally settling on answering that it was up to him to decide whether he made a statement about something or not. National's whip Tim McIndoe rode in to Lotu-Iiga's defence, pointing out that when questions were about statements Lotu-Iiga had made "it is illogical to then ask the minister why he doesn't stand by not making a statement".
Of course, once things reach the point that the whips or senior ministers have to intervene to mount a rescue, the interrogators can smell blood. So Lotu-Iiga sat down to a delighted barrage from Labour. Chris Hipkins called out that Judith Collins was looking better by the day. Higher forces intervened to provide some relief for Lotu-Iiga. Just as Mark, NZ First's terrier, stood to ask his question, the microphone system went down. MPs in Parliament could hear one another, but nobody watching on Parliament TV could.
The sound issue was unresolved by the time Mark finished, leading Labour's Megan Wood to quip: "Sam's clearly got a friend in the sound booth."
Lotu-Iiga was granted a temporary reprieve this week as Labour realised there were bigger fish to fry. For now at least, the Prime Minister is the flounder hogging the whole frypan and Lotu-Iiga is simply the piece of onion caramelising on the backburner. This attack on the PM's links with blogger Cameron Slater has the Greens, NZ First and Labour all queuing up demanding to know who has whose phone numbers and who made the first move. All that is left is to find out who Key has made pocket calls to.
Those weary of that can while away the hours by watching Steven Joyce negotiate America's Cup funding. He yesterday showed off his knowledge of sailing by likening the Cup to the Dance of the Seven Veils. "One minute it's going to be here, the next minute it's going to do this, and there's something else."
Very enlightening indeed.
As for Lotu-Iiga, he may well be ruing not having taken the chance to get some escape tips from Philip John Smith.