Aug 3, 2008

Which Way Will Winston Vote?

Winston Peters knows that he will not be Foreign Minister or Minister of Racing next weekend. This is now conventional thinking around Wellington and is a position expressed in today's Herald on Sunday Editorial

Until now, the Prime Minister has adopted a legalistic wait-and-see approach, saying she must let matters run their course. It is notable that her endorsements of Peters, never warm, are becoming steadily cooler. But it is intolerable that she should allow one of her ministers the freedom to manipulate the democratic process.
Up to now, she has had to consider the implications for the coalition's stability of alienating Peters, but this week, as the last of the Budget legislation is passed, represents the last procedural opportunity for NZ First to bring the Government down and force an early election. Come Friday, the PM could, and should, sack the minister and expose him to the chill electoral winds that are blowing his way. It would be a good thing for the country if those winds, once and for all, blew him from the political stage.

The only reason why the PM has been willing to suffer the damage that her support for Winston (unpopular with 95% of the electorate) is doing to Labour is the knowledge that Winston holds the key to her being able to delay the election until 8 or 15 November (talk of an October election has now ceased). Labour has one more vote on "supply" to survive. It was delayed from this week but will have to be held next week. Labour's expectation is that Winston and team will vote the right way, thus allowing Labour to survive in office until November. And with the vote out of the way, the Government surviving, Clark can at last show the leadership on Winston that has been lacking. She can seize upon one of next week's new allegations (there are several just awaiting release) and fire him. Friday is the best time to do it as it will minimise the media scrutiny and public attention on the issue thanks to the multiple distractions of the weekend (The Hive's readership falls from an average of around 850 a day Monday to Friday to just over 500 Saturday and Sunday).

But Winston knows all this. Much as he hates Bill, Winston will have had repeated to him , or even read, Bill Ralston's analysis today. Likewise he will know of the HOS Editorial, and analysis in anti-Peters blogs such as The Inquiring Mind, The Hive, Tumeke, Whaleoil, Kiwiblog, Keeping Stock, No Minister, Home Paddock etc.

Winston's strange behavior of late is not about insanity (though he is feeling the stress). It is about which tactics will work best for delivering a 5% plus result for NZ First in the election (Winston knows that he will not win Tauranga). So is it in his interests to be fired on Friday having voted yes on supply, or would it be best to vote no on supply and force an early election? This no vote could be accompanied by, or even better preceded by, a well publicised resignation. Winston could publicly reject the baubles of office. Remind his Grey Power constituency of Labours many sins, and rightly claim that he has single handedly saved them from the increased energy costs that Labour wanted to imposed under its Emissions Trading Scheme.

He can of course do all this after he is fired, but it will look somewhat hypocritical to have given Labour a new lease of life and then come out guns blazing.

The other reason for bringing the Government down now is that the public has a short memory. Winston's core support group seem to be reasonably sympathetic to his plight right now - these simple folk see Peters as the victim of a conspiracy involving big business and the media out to get our Winston. By November this sympathy vote might have waned. And there is also the risk that more of Winston's supporters will have decided that John Key is a decent bloke, worthy of their vote. By moving now, Peters will still be seen on election day as a victim, and the person who is allowing the country to get rid of Labour early. The election campaign will reduce focus on his dodgy party funding regime, and if he moves fast - today or tomorrow, he might even steal away the poll bounce likely after National's successful party conference.

The next few days are going to be some of the most interesting in the life of the current Government.