It is hard to know which is worse: John Key's claim in Parliament that Standard & Poor's said a ratings downgrade was more likely if Labour came into power, or his attempted justification - that an unnamed person had sent him an email saying something like that. Both offence and defence were way too loose for the office he holds.
The Prime Minister should be worldly enough to know that S&P would not be so gauche as to discuss a country's internal politics. It sounds and is implausible, no matter what an email tipster might claim. The agency had to issue a formal denial of Mr Key's second-hand tattle.
That saw him produce, when challenged, an anonymised email which hardly helped his case.
The email, from a regular "source" of the Prime Minister, said that at a lunch last month with a panel including S&P experts the "inference was clear" that chances of a credit rating downgrade would increase if there was a change of government.
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Inferences are in the mind of the beholder.
Mr Key's statement to Parliament had no room for such subtlety, claiming outright that the agency said a downgrade would be more likely.
Claims from people with partisan agendas should not be accepted at face value. The source has not come forward to publicly validate his or her claim. Mr Key is left stranded, having misquoted an improbable "one-liner" concocted by an anonymous supporter. Parliament, S&P and the public deserve better. He should retract and apologise.