If John Key wants to avoid having to govern with Winston Peters perched constantly and awkwardly on his shoulder, he is going to have to help Colin Craig get his Conservative Party across the 5 per cent threshold.
That is the unambiguous message to National's leader from today's Herald-DigiPoll survey.
National's support is starting to slowly slide below the 50 per cent mark. Key would still be able to govern with Act's and United Future's two MPs - plus any Maori Party MPs who survive the election. Key would still want some insurance, however, should his party slip further during the eight days left until election day.
Key has to factor two other elements into the power equation. First, the polls may be overstating the actual level of support for Craig's party. Ticking Conservative on the ballot paper may prove more difficult psychology-wise than saying "Conservative" to a pollster at the other end of the phone line.
Second, the polls have long tended to underestimate the true level of support for New Zealand First, possibly because those who quietly back Peters find it too embarrassing to admit it. So Peters' party, which secured a very healthy 8 per cent-plus in today's poll, may well be trending around the 10 per cent mark that Peters claims it is.
The question remains: Would Key prefer to work with Peters or Craig if National ends up needing another party to govern? As Key keeps repeating, it is good to have options. But Craig is not an option until the Conservatives actually cross the threshold proper on election night. Neither can Key afford to see a whole lot of likely centre-right votes go to waste if the Conservatives fail to hit 5 per cent.
Key yesterday ruled out gifting an electorate to Craig because it was too late. So far, Key keeps repeating that if people want a third-term National Government, they should simply give their party vote to National.
But that is of no help to Craig - or National for that matter.
In the countdown to September 20, Key must decide whether to do something which will be very tricky to accomplish.
It involves flagging to National voters that some of them are needed to give their party vote to the Conservatives. But not too many such that National suffers in the process.
How Key does this is hard to say. But he would have known it was always on the cards - and thus has had plenty of time to think about it.
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