With the Prime Minister safely overseas it was left to his beleaguered deputy, Bill English, to mount John Key's defence for pulling a waitress' ponytail when Parliament returned yesterday.

English is not prone to defending bad behaviour. He distanced himself from the tactics some of his colleagues were shown to have used in Dirty Politics by saying it was not the approach he would take. Distancing yourself from a minister's bad behaviour is one thing. But this was the Prime Minister.

Labour's Annette King was first up. She lobbed Key's own words about the dangers of arrogance seeping in to a third-term Government. She wanted to know whether Key's antics were "arrogant", "veering off into a space where he had not been before" or simply totally inappropriate.

English's claim that Key had already admitted his behaviour was "totally inappropriate" was greeted with guffaws from Labour.

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In between describing it as "horsing around" and "banter" the closest Key had come to any such declaration was to admit it was inappropriate "in hindsight".

Undaunted, English set off on prong two of his defence, a defence slightly punctured by the word "almost". He said Key had engaged in "intensive interactions" with the public for years now and in that time had "observed almost always the highest standards of appropriate behaviour".

Key hadn't made it easy for English. Tea has become a symbol of trouble for Key, courtesy of the cups he has enjoyed in Epsom. Despite his experience, he had at one point blamed tea leaves for his ponytail problem, saying he had "clearly misread the tea leaves" .

Now King wanted to know whether he stood by that comment, and how often the Prime Minister consulted the tea leaves for advice. English settled for saying that Key did stand by his diagnosis of a faulty tea leaf consultation and reiterated the reason the Prime Minister was disappointed was because "in almost every other respect his interaction with New Zealanders is positive".

By now English was likely to be recalling his earlier description of Key as a man who "just bounces from one cloud to another" and wishing he could push him off. It only got worse when NZ First leader Winston Peters waded in, asking what "psychological condition" Key had that prompted him to pull ponytails and whether he would apologise to all those others whose hair had been tweaked. English dismissed his theory as envy, saying the Opposition clearly resented Key's track record of "very positive interaction" with New Zealanders, most of whom did not complain about it.

Finally he was done, just as Key touched down in Saudi Arabia where the headscarf is compulsory. For Key at least, the problem of hair was out of sight and out of mind. For English, round two begins today.