It was with a subtle signal rather than bells tolling that Prime Minister John Key announced the death of the political tradition of the cup of tea.

That signal was rather more subtle than the cup of tea itself, although that wouldn't be hard.

Key simply stated, in answer to a question about whether he would be repeating his cup of tea with Act leader John Banks, that instead National would make some decisions about whom it wanted to work with and set out as clearly as possible what was involved, including which electorates might be concerned.

That one statement made it quite clear that Key has decided the time had come to abandon the pretence of being subtle about the obvious.


The cup of tea began as a feature of election campaigns under MMP. It served the purpose of sending signals to voters unaccustomed to the concept that in order to get the party you wanted into power, you sometimes had to vote for another party altogether. The meeting at a local cafe was usually followed by coy statements, such as Key's double negative last year that he "won't be unhappy" if Epsom voted for Act's Banks.

The cup of tea might have had its place in the fledgling stages of MMP, when voters were still figuring out how to vote strategically. It has had its uses. But it also had a use-by date. Now it is just patronising and volatile for those involved. In the hopes that rumours of its demise have not been exaggerated, let us remember the good times it gave us.

There was the inaugural cup of tea in 2005 between former National leader Don Brash and United Future leader Peter Dunne. The image that will go down in history was of Dunne on his phone facing one way, while Brash faced the opposite way scanning the street to make sure Act's Rodney Hide wasn't on the horizon.

The most significant feature of it was the signal it sent about a cup of tea that didn't happen at all: between Brash and Hide, who was battling to win the Epsom electorate with no help at all from National. As it happened, the Epsom voters were rather more intelligent than National in that election and voted for Hide anyway - something that paid off for National in the end.

That same year saw the Labour-Greens equivalent of a cup of tea. Labour's Helen Clark and the Green Party's Jeanette Ftizsimons visited two schools together to show that the Greens were Labour's preferred coalition partner rather than NZ First. Again it backfired, this time on any voters who might have believed it. The end result was that the Greens were jilted in favour of NZ First and United Future - something Clark explained by saying they had the greater numbers and had vetoed any Green involvement.

Key took his turn in 2008 when he had a cup with then Act leader Rodney Hide to help him retain the Epsom seat. Then there was the 2011 Mother of All Cuppas between Banks and Key. That cup of tea reeked even without the subsequent disaster of the recorder left on the table.

There was some surprise that Key went through with it at all. It followed days of being asked whether he was going to have the cup of tea. The speculation got to such a point that Key was left with little choice: refusing to go ahead with it would have been interpreted as a snub to Act, which did desperately need the PM's sanction after its term of woe.

It is a terribly problematic stunt. That is why the media love it. The drama is as much in the build-up as the execution. There are the will-they-or-won't-they moments, the venue changes as their opponents get wind of it, followed by the choice of Earl Grey or English Breakfast.


But all in all they have become ridiculous, unnecessary affairs and degrading for all concerned. The Prime Minister comes across at best as patronising to voters, and, at worst, despotic by trying to order them round. The beneficiary of the cup of tea looks a bit like a beggar, and the voters are treated as fools.

This time round, Key has discovered there is another way to skin a cat and that is to simply spell it out. He has indicated that is exactly what he intends to do, at least once he figures out for himself what messages he wants to send. That is far less offensive to the voters but Key will have to take some care in sending the messages.

Voters generally don't like being told what to do. But we can expect some fairly clear messages about what Key is hoping for from loyal National voters in 2014, especially in relation to Act and the Conservative Party.

As for the cups of tea, one person has remained above them - NZ First leader Winston Peters. Whether that is because nobody particularly wants to have one with him or because of his stubborn pride is unclear.

This is the first time Key has left open the option of talks with Peters. But he has adopted the tough love approach to it - saying this week that Mr Peters spoke in such riddles that the only suitable tea party would be the Mad Hatter's.