Honesty is the first quality the public asks of those they elect to positions of trust.

Confidence in the honesty of those in power was shaken yesterday after the disclosure of some of the details behind a rift in the electorate office of National's Clutha-Southland MP, Todd Barclay.

An investigation by the Newsroom website discovered a text message from Bill English to Barclay's former electorate chairman telling him how Barclay had recorded conversations in the electorate office.

Yesterday, when asked by reporters how he knew Barclay had left a dictaphone running in the electorate office, the Prime Minister at first said he could not recall who had told him.

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Within hours, he had thought better of that answer, confirming Barclay himself had told him. Barclay, meanwhile, was continuing to deny recording the conversations, just as he has denied them in the past.

Barclay's political career looks to be terminally damaged by this episode but the statements of the present and previous prime ministers over their young MP's problems are more important.

English, who vacated the electorate Barclay now holds, knew the people involved very well. The assistant whose phone calls were recorded, Glenys Dickson, had been English's electorate secretary for 17 years. When her frustrations with the new MP led to an employment dispute with Parliamentary Services part of the confidential settlement early last year was paid to her from the budget of the Prime Minister's office.

So English certainly, and Sir John Key probably, were well acquainted with the behaviour of their first-term MP. Both pretended not to be when asked about it in public interviews. Both tried to play it down, understandably for the sake of the Government's majority in Parliament.

Yet they allowed Barclay to continue making public denials of the recording and despite the rift in the electorate, Barclay has been re-selected as National's candidate this year.

Surreptitious recording of private communications between others is illegal under section 216 of the Crimes Act. Police have investigated the allegation against Barclay but appear to have had no-co-operation from him.

The Prime Minister says he told police what Barclay told him but the investigation ended in December with police concluding they had "insufficient evidence" for a charge.

None of this reflects well on any of those involved.

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Barclay was a border-line selection for the safe National seat in 2014 from the beginning. His previous job, a corporate affairs manager for a tobacco company, Philip Morris, was not exactly an ideal launch pad for politics.

But National took a deep breath and gave him a chance. Reports of tensions between him and the electorate office began surfacing the following year.

Dickson's comments to Newsroom suggest he was not a diligent or reliable electorate MP while she was there. After the settlement, she learned he had left a device running to record what she was saying on the phone (about him?).

None of this may be very important in itself but, as so often in politics, it is the way it is handled and the lack of candour in what has been said about it, that reflects badly on those at the top.