The result of our poll today could suggest voters will forgive any foolish behaviour from this Prime Minister. If the man himself reads the results that way he would be foolish indeed. The fact that his support from polled voters is undiminished by the disclosure of his penchant for pulling a young woman's ponytail may have something to do with his response. Wisely, he soon dropped the excuse that it was mere "horseplay" in his local coffee bar - some sort of standing joke enjoyed by all except the poor waitress - and admitted he had been plain stupid.
Persistently stupid. He would be wise to continue chastising himself whenever the subject is raised on his return from overseas. If supporters make light of it around him, he should not for a moment join in. It was not funny, and not just another of the fun-loving political risks he has taken over the years. Some of those were charming, some cringe-worthy, none previously involved an unwanted physical contact.
He probably owes his survival in the poll to his enemies. They were so quick to accuse him of bullying, harassment, physical abuse and worse, that fair-minded people came to his defence. He was guilty of being a bit goofy, they argued, nothing worse. But to tug someone's hair repeatedly sounds worse. It sounds odd.
The fact that his support has survived does not mean the damage to his reputation is negligible. It is an entry in the debit column of a political ledger that is still comfortably in the black. Mr Key has amassed unusual political capital for a PM who has been two terms in office. No other in our lifetime has increased his party's seats at three successive elections, though the Northland byelection has brought National back to its second term tally.
If Northland was thought to signify a turn of the national tide, the beginning of a third term slide, the latest poll suggests otherwise. While Winston Peters' personal ratings and his party's have improved, the Government and the PM retain the support they had before the byelection. Their ledger may look healthy but they cannot afford many debits. Each will count heavily when the country wants a change.
In the meantime, the unusually sustained popularity of the PM is causing intense frustration among his opponents, not so much in Parliament but outside it, on websites and in some academic circles where resentment has become extreme. These people are doing their cause no favours with their seething hatred of a political figure who everyone else knows to be an economic moderate and social liberal. They are not helping Labour's recovery, still below 30 per cent in this poll, and the Greens remain around 10 per cent. Probably nothing will change until the economy turns down and so far there is no sign of it. Growth is so strong, despite low dairy prices, that the Reserve Bank cannot cut interest rates this week in line with other countries. Growth should be producing a surplus in the Budget next month.
Missing its surplus target will be another significant debit in the political ledger. The Government cannot afford too many more.
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