In the Court of King John, someone needs to tell the Prime Minister when he is behaving like a jerk.

Someone in John Key's inner circle needs to take the traditional jester's role of being the fool who can tell the sovereign he is a fool when everyone else is too obsequious, too obliging or too deferential to do so.

It would also be a good idea to suggest to the Prime Minister that he gets his pigtail fetish under control.

It goes without saying that Key's repeated pulling of the hair of a waitress at an Auckland cafe he frequents was utterly inappropriate.

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His claim that the "horsing around" was all meant to be light-hearted and part of the "fun and games" at the cafe does not wash. That is an excuse for something for which there is no excuse.

At the end of the day, any contact that a Prime Minister has with anyone involves a power relationship where the power is all or almost all weighted on one side. That is just the nature of Key's job. But many people find that intimidating and would feel powerless to act if they were likewise so harassed, as the waitress felt she was.

The Prime Minister must always remain cognisant of that. Under Cabinet rules, he more than anyone else is obliged to uphold the highest ethical standards because he is judge and jury when it comes to his ministers meeting those standards.

One reason why Key is so popular is that he has sought to cut through the barrier between Prime Minister and public by being approachable, never talking down to people no matter their status, and never letting his high approval ratings go to his head.

That is why people reading the waitress' account of the hair-pulling will wince. They will find the whole episode odd, cringe-making and seemingly very much out of character for Key. His sending the waitress a couple of bottles of pinot noir from the Otago vineyard he part owns as an apology will be seen as equally crass.

While his behaviour is also a function of the kind of self-delusional belief in one's invincibility that infects all politicians the longer they are in power, Key basically crossed a line between informality and over-familiarity.

His punishment is to be left squirming and stewing under a huge pile of embarrassment, including copious quantities generated by international media coverage.

The headlines will fade quickly enough, especially given the saturation coverage which will be given to Gallipoli commemorations over the coming weekend.

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But the worry for Key and National is that this unseemly episode is of such magnitude and as something that forces people to take a position could severely jolt positive perceptions of Key, especially among female voters who flocked to National after he became leader.

David Cunliffe got into trouble for apologising for being a man. The Prime Minister has been forced to apologise for failing to be the man most people thought he was. That must surely be to his political cost.

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