John Key has put Judith Collins on her second final warning in five months over her "unwise" collusion with Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater to torment a public servant even as the Prime Minister braces for an ongoing stream of damaging emails to be released during the election campaign.
Until yesterday, Mr Key was staunchly defending his Justice Minister over claims in Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics book that she acted inappropriately by passing details about public servant Simon Pleasants to Slater. The day after receiving those details in 2009, Slater launched a vicious online campaign against Mr Pleasants, who he suspected of working with Labour to embarrass Finance Minister Bill English.
Yesterday the person who claims to have hacked the emails which Hager's book is based on released Ms Collins' email to Slater in which she gave Mr Pleasants' name, job title and even phone numbers. That prompted Mr Key's grudging first admission that Hager's claims had at least some substance.
Of the email, he said: "The passing of the private information in terms of phone numbers, I think that was unwise of a minister."
Mr Key already had Ms Collins on a final warning since March when she was found to have misled him and the public about her Beijing dinner with Oravida boss Deyi Shi.
Facing growing calls to sack Ms Collins, he yesterday said the March warning remained in place. He denied she was now on her "last last" chance.
"What she's on is on her last chance after what happened last time."
He would not take action over Ms Collins' actions revealed in Hager's book because he didn't want to act "retrospectively".
"This thing is five years away."
But as Ms Collins' final warnings stack up, her political future hangs on what else is revealed in emails Mr Key expects to see released by the anonymous hacker.