By Heather du Plessis-Allan
The NZ First leader's dreams of ruling are ruined, but the master and the maverick might still hold a trump card.
You've got to feel sorry for Winston Peters.
When we count the scalps Jacindamania has claimed - Andrew Little, Peter Dunne, Metiria Turei - few of us include Peters. Yet he has lost a lot. His dream's now as good as dead.
Peters wanted to be Prime Minister. He came tantalisingly close.
New Zealand First almost overtook Labour as the country's second biggest party. One internal Labour poll reportedly put Winston's party at 19%, nipping at Labour's 20 per cent.
Forget kingmaker. He was almost king. If he had overtaken Labour, he could have claimed the PM's crown instead of trying to negotiate his way into a few months in the job.
He would've made a good Prime Minister. He's much better than the rogue we often write him off as. If you look closely, much of what seems like chaos is actually the manoeuvrings of a very clever politician.
Take his policies, for example. In my view, some of them are ridiculous to the point of stupidity.
There was this week's idea to renationalise shares in formerly state-owned electricity companies, the proposal to build Christchurch a stadium entirely out of New Zealand wood, and the plan to recarpet all state houses and government buildings with New Zealand wool carpet.
Peters doesn't have to implement any of those policies. If he gets into power, he can walk away from them because they're dumb and because few of us will insist on him seeing them through.
But for now, they drag in a little vote here and a little vote there, whether it's the elderly struggling to pay electricity bills or sheep farmers suffering the effects of open markets.
Problems only occur when his MPs draw national attention to his stupid policies.
Peters is a maverick. It's deliberate. He has to be a maverick to get attention.
It's no small achievement that his party has existed year after year and despite his three year exile from Parliament.
But, the maverick in Opposition always turns into the master in Government.
When Peters gets the chance, he rises to the occasion. Treasurer, Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, he has done them well.
He has delivered more than just the Supergold card. He gave under 6-year-olds free healthcare. That has now been extended to children under 13. He managed to get the United States to call New Zealand an ally for the first time in more than 20 years.
It says everything about his political abilities that he can navigate from maverick to master so deftly.
Still, there are times when the maverick goes too far. The Owen Glenn debacle damaged his reputation. In my view, the undertones of racism - or overtones to some - don't always sit well. He can't quite shake the reputation of being hard to manage.
But now the chance of being king has faded. He's back to kingmaker only, and the question is whom he'll crown.
Anyone who predicts Peters' behaviour with certainty is either a fool or Peters himself. It ultimately comes down to which party gives him the most goodies after the election.
But, assuming he gets offered exactly the same deal by both sides - and with every possible caveat attached - my money is on Labour.
In 1992, Bill English seconded the motion to kick Peters out of the National Party and the pair still barely get on.
Bill English as much as confessed that this week during the Herald's Prime Minister Job Interviews. Relationships matter to Peters.
So what does Peters do now?
Now, he waits patiently for Jacindamania to pass before revving his own campaign into gear. By committing to being "relentlessly positive", Labour leader Jacinda Ardern has left a gap for Peters: "relentlessly realistic"'. If Ardern takes the aspirational approach, Peters can take the fearmongering approach.
But who am I to tell Peters what to do? He's the master of politics. And the maverick.