Zip-lipped Opposition rob Key of fuel for stinging ripostes but fail to claim outright win.

John Key was looking forward to a good old-fashioned stoush in Parliament yesterday. He did not get one. A new year and Labour is experimenting with a new tactic to spike the Prime Minister's potent verbal guns. That tactic is to simply ignore him when he holds the floor for any length of time.

The first sitting day of the House is devoted to the debate on the Prime Minister's statement - a 20-page document which purports to outline the Government's legislative programme for the year without giving very much away in advance in terms of detail.

The debate on the Prime Minister's statement thus tends to be a debate on anything but the Prime Minister's statement. It instead provides an excuse for party leaders to resume hostilities in the House after the Christmas-New Year break.

But not this year. Not for want of trying on Key's behalf. So keen was he to get stuck into Labour that he forgot to move the required motion tabling his statement and had to be brought to heel by the Speaker, David Carter.

Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Once Key did get going, it was quickly apparent something odd was happening. Noticeably absent was the usual barrage of interjections directed at the Prime Minister from the Labour benches. Labour MPs had instead adopted a cone of silence as they busied themselves with looking busy without looking at Key.

When it comes to one-upmanship, Key performs best when he is feeding off Opposition insults. He thrives on interruptions and the challenge of winging it with devastating put-downs of his adversaries. Usually being on the end of all that, Labour well knows it.

Depriving Key of a crucial audience took some of the sting out of his mixture of barbs and pre-rehearsed jokes at Labour's expense. Labour could not claim a victory. But the party probably denied Key being able to claim one either.

This was underlined when Cunliffe got to his feet. He is normally an impressive orator in a Parliament sadly short of such creatures.

But not yesterday. His relentlessly negative diatribe on Key's and National's perceived faults was too over the top to ring true and failed to answer one pertinent question. If things are going as badly wrong in New Zealand as Cunliffe claims, why are Key and National still so popular?

"You can do better than that, David," interjected National's Tau Henare at one point. The backbencher's critique was one with which it was difficult to quibble.