The shock departure of yet another party leader in the leadup to the general election has further cemented New Zealand First's likely role as kingmaker in the next government.
In a further twist to a chaotic election, United Future leader and Ohariu MP Peter Dunne yesterday became the third leader in three weeks to step down. He said polls in his electorate had shown a mood for change - a trend which he partly attributed to Labour's selection of Jacinda Ardern as leader.
New Zealand First was already odds-on to hold the balance of power after the September 23 election before Dunne's shock resignation.
That position has been strengthened as National is now even less likely to be able to form a coalition with its remaining support partners, Act and the Maori Party.
Despite the loss of a key ally, Prime Minister Bill English said yesterday that National would not be looking to build ties with New Zealand First and Winston Peters.
He would not concede that National would need New Zealand First to form a government, he said.
"We're working hard to lift our party vote because we would want to form a strong government after September 23. And if we can successfully lift our vote then that is a real possibility."
English rejected suggestions that the political landscape had shifted, saying that the polls had long shown it would be a tough election to win.
"In that sense our task hasn't changed."
But he signalled to National voters who might have been "drifting off" to Labour or New Zealand First that they should return to his party, saying that nine years of economic progress were at stake.
The loss of United Future will not hurt National's election chances in real terms, because Parliament's makeup is decided by party votes not electorate seats.
But it caused National some embarrassment because it had directed its supporters to vote for Dunne in Ohariu as part of a long-standing electoral arrangement. National's Ohariu candidate Brett Hudson has already distributed leaflets telling constituents to split their vote.
Dunne was facing serious pressure for his Ohariu seat from the Labour candidate Greg O'Connor.
O'Connor said yesterday he was still shocked at his rival's sudden resignation.
"Yes, it's a surprise," he told the Herald. "But this is an election like no other."
Ardern acknowledged Dunne's long service as an MP. She said it was hard to know who his supporters would now rally behind.
"This race just got very, very interesting," she said.
Dunne said the polls were strongly in his favour until about three weeks ago - when Ardern took over as Leader of the Opposition.
"It was a bit like taking the cork out of a bottle and making it all come out. And that's a pretty tough tide to fight," Dunne told the Herald.
"I think it's a bit like air out of a balloon...I don't think there is a deep-seated mood for change in the country. But there is a mood for excitement and all that sort of stuff.
"The fact you can have a campaign opening attended by singers and actors, and that's seen as credible, just suggests how superficial this has all become."
Dunne said he still expected Bill English to be Prime Minister after the election.
"He's got the depth of experience and knowledge and understanding that I don't see matched by anyone else in politics today."
- additional reporting Nicholas Jones