You do not need to be a mind-reader to spot when the Prime Minister is under real pressure in Parliament. His answers to Opposition questions suddenly get drastically shorter, often being pared-down to a one-word "yes" or "no" and his reply is followed by what is now almost a trademark sharp and very audible intake of breath.
There were plenty of those yesterday as the Greens' Russel Norman sought to skewer John Key on the question lingering after Nicky Hager's book, Dirty Politics. Did the Prime Minister know more about what was going on in National's dirty-tricks department than he has been letting on?
Norman asked Key how many times he had spoken to Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater or sent a text.
"None in my capacity as Prime Minister," Key replied. That wording was very deliberate.
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Key's argument is that any communications with Slater occurred in his capacity as leader of the National Party, not as Prime Minister. The distinction is important. It allows Key to wriggle free from his detractors, even if it is not very becoming.
As Prime Minister, Key is accountable to Parliament for his Government's actions. He is not accountable to Parliament for the actions and behaviour of the National Party. Any Opposition question straying into the latter's territory must be ruled out of order by Parliament's Speaker.
Labour's Chris Hipkins, however, sought to close off this escape route by asking whether Key had ever phoned or sent a text to Slater on his Government-supplied phone.
"I am not 100 per cent sure of that," Key replied to mocking laughter from the Opposition benches.
But Winston Peters suggested there was something "particularly disturbing" about the Prime Minister's first reply. If the Speaker, David Carter, allowed it to stand there would be no accountability to Parliament at all. Carter dismissed Peters' argument, but later agreed to have another look at transcripts of the question time exchange.
The question to be resolved is whether Key should get away with determining which particular hat he is or was wearing at which particular time, and more so when the hat-switching is designed to get him off a very uncomfortable political hook.
Debate on this article is now closed.