To listen to some people rabbiting on about Winston Peters' being the "kingmaker", you could be excused for thinking he is the one who will be crowned king, rather than Bill English or in Jacinda Ardern's case, queen.

The usual cliches asserting Peters is "calling the shots" or "in the box seat" are hauled out for another run around the paddock.

Being the sole party holding the balance of power is worth a king's ransom, of course.

And during the forthcoming negotiations on the composition of the new government, Peters will be using every trick in his well-thumbed handbook of political ploys to extract several such king's ransoms measured in power, portfolios and perks when he and other members of his negotiating team start eyeballing their Labour and National counterparts in separate, but tandem talks.


The feeling that the monarch-maker is the one who will end up being the monarch is accentuated by the sudden deference displayed by the two major parties towards Peters.

After months of intimating that accommodating the veteran politician was about as inviting as cohabiting with Attila the Hun, Labour and National have been auditioning as doormats who could not welcome Peters across their respective thresholds fast enough.

The level of obsequiousness to which those two parties are capable of sinking was amply demonstrated by English's labelling Peters a "maverick".

From the moment National's leader uttered the word, the air was filled with gurgling noises as English desperately searched for the right words to retract what many would regard as a euphemism for National's true feelings towards Peters.

The verbal slip-up is unlikely to play much part in determining whether English's chances of remaining prime minister have gone down the gurgler.

Peters has much heavier matters of import to weigh up before determining which way he will go.

He knows from the bitter experience of the National-New Zealand coalition, formed in 1996 in the aftermath of the first MMP election to be conducted, that the only crown he is likely to end up wearing is a Crown of Thorns.

Whatever choice he makes will disappoint and annoy far more people than it pleases.

As Peters soon discovered, after reinstalling National in power after the 1996 election, the kingmaker becomes the target for discontent and dissatisfaction - not the king or queen.

That would be best avoided by New Zealand First being a driving force in a first-term Labour-led administration. That would be far more preferable than being a cling-on to a fourth-term National-dominated one.

Were Peters to opt for Labour, the ratio of that party's seats to New Zealand First's would be five to one. If his choice is National, the ratio edges closer to seven to one - and he has consequently less leverage.

If policy compatibility is the gauge, Labour is again the only realistic choice.

Labour would be far more amenable to slashing immigrant numbers than is National, for example. Only Labour can make the changes in economic policy to satisfy Peters' demand for an alternative to the "failed experiment" of neo-liberalism.

Opting for National would suggest he did not actually believe what he had been spouting on the campaign trail.

If Labour is smart, its strategists would already have constructed a potential governing arrangement which offers a few crumbs to the Greens in return for keeping them well out of Peters' way.

The Greens are powerless. They are hostage to whatever Labour decides.

When it comes to personal rather policy compatibility, there will be another factor lurking in Peters' consciousness. The coalition deal he struck with Jim Bolger in 1996 was destroyed from within, not without.

Jenny Shipley exploited the antipathy with which many in National's ranks regarded Peters at that time.

She used the unpopularity of the compulsory superannuation scheme Peters was promoting to drive a wedge between Bolger, who was supportive of Peters, and the rest of the party. Her subsequent successful leadership coup was followed by her using further state asset sales as a means of destroying the coalition.

Fast forward 20 years and Bill English, like Bolger, has triumphed to the point of delivering the best election result the party could have hoped to achieve.

That will do nothing to assuage the frustrated ambitions of those sitting elsewhere on National's front bench.

If English fails to keep National in power or National's popularity starts to slide during a fourth term on the government benches, the pressure will build for a challenge to English's leadership and the holding of a ballot on the top job that Sir John Key denied the National caucus when he retired late last year.

When it comes to functioning coalitions, Peters should not be overly concerned about the one-seat majority a Labour-New Zealand First-Greens arrangement would enjoy (if that is the right word).

That majority would be odds-on to double once special votes are counted.

When it comes to the potential for byelections to erode a government's majority, it is worth noting that of the 12 such ballots held in the past couple of decades or so, only one was prompted by the death of an MP.

That was Parekura Horomia in Ikaroa-Rawhiti, a very safe Labour seat.

If you ignore the meaningless byelections caused by Hone Harawira and Dame Tariana Turia to validate their waka-jumping, only one byelection since 1994 has seen an Opposition party capture a government-held seat.

That seat was Northland, however. And it is a very large "however".

Having championed the cause of stagnating regional economies with a passion and energy that was second to none, Peters must be seriously worried by his reward being his dumping by the very voters who were eating out of his hand just two years ago.

It is a huge reminder of the conservatism of New Zealand voters and the risk he would be taking in hitching his unique brand of conservatism to the political correctness exhibited by Labour.

Peters likes to talk a lot about bottom lines.

But his ultimate bottom line is the survival of New Zealand First after he (eventually) retires from politics. And that will incline him to lean more in National's direction as post-election negotiations progress over coming weeks.

Outlining Peters' options is easy; determining which one is in his and his party's best interests is - to pillage the phraseology of Winston's more famous namesake - a riddle wrapped in a conundrum encased in the enigma of Peters' at times unfathomable personality.