In the space of a week, Prime Minister John Key has performed a rather acrobatic about-flip.

Yesterday's announcement New Zealand would take 750 Syrian refugees, including 600 above its usual quota, was in stark contrast to his shoulder-shrugging press conference the week before at which he dismissed even contemplating any action until the middle of next year.

Key had the grace to effectively admit that was driven by the public response to the scenes coming out of Europe. The only consolation Key could tender for his about-turn on Syria was that other leaders across the world were in the same situation, including his buddies Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Key had to do something because this time it was not just the left calling for more. It was middle New Zealand - the New Zealanders who are Key's political life blood. In the grand scheme of things there is little difference between 300 and 750. Just as it is questionable whether sending a handful of military trainers to Iraq will make any difference in combating Islamic State, so it is debatable whether the kind of numbers New Zealand can take in as refugees will have any impact. But Key had to do something.

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Key's response was a moderate one, guided by practical considerations, and just enough to please that centre.

His decision to provide for 600 refugees above the quota effectively shut down any criticism Labour could lobby. That is particularly so given the last time New Zealand went over its quota was also under National, in 1999 when it took in 400 ethnic Albanians fleeing ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

But Labour had backed Key into a corner with its own call to let in 750 Syrians. It meant Key could not get away with a smaller number. Key had little choice but to go above the quota if he was to reach that figure.

He could not simply turn off the tap to refugees from other countries because the easier PR hit lay with Syria.

There were also international considerations at play - New Zealand is on the Security Council and must practise what it preaches.