The National Party must be getting worried about the inability of the Prime Minister to put the Barclay embarrassment to rest. When he dealt with more questions on the subject over the weekend, he managed to contradict himself again. First he suggested, in a television interview screened on Saturday morning, the recording allegedly made by MP Todd Barclay might not exist. The next day he told a press conference Barclay had offered to play it to him.
The first statement might have been legalistic. "The fact of a recording has never actually been established. The police investigated, came to no conclusion, no court decision." It is a fact that the illegality of the recording has not been established, why did the Prime Minister not say that, if he really had to remind all concerned that the inconclusive police investigation is one of the several troubling elements of this affair.
This is election year and minor slip-ups are bound to be magnified. Political leaders come under intense scrutiny and rightly so. Incidents such as this are often less important in substance than for what they tell us about the qualities of those we may be about to elect. The way Bill English is handling this is falling short of the skills of the leader he followed. Sir John Key would have finessed all questions on the subject since last week when Barclay announced he would leave Parliament at the election.
Key would have answered further questions with cheerful patience while saying nothing that would keep the subject alive. Key would have been dull. English seems unwilling to be dull; he cannot help making the discussion a bit more interesting with sometimes clever, oblique points of argument such as the comments that have sent this story into a second week.
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It is just as well English has come to the top job with eight impressive years as Finance Minister behind him. If he was auditioning for the role of Prime Minister now he might do no better than he did when he ran as Opposition leader in 2002. A Prime Minister needs to keep his sights above the minor details and technicalities of a case such as this. He ought to be keeping the country's focus on the fact that Barclay has paid for his political mistake with his career and that the police will make their own decision about whether it warrants a prosecution.
Many people will think Barclay has suffered enough. Many will be as surprised as Barclay probably was to discover it is illegal to make hidden recordings of conversations in your own office unless you are a party to the conversation. The way English dealt with the information he had about the recording has been quite properly under examination in Parliament. Not many, apart from Opposition parties and supporters, might blame him for not going straight to the police, or for keeping this row within the Clutha-Southland branch of the National Party.
It was an internal problem for the party, which raises questions about the use of public money to settle the dispute. These questions will continue to dog the Prime Minister and worry his party unless he stops contradicting himself.