Walk away, Bill

It’s axiomatic that any negotiation you are not willing to walk away from is not a real negotiation. So Bill English needs to be willing to walk away from Winston Peters. And, after watching Mr. Peters’ press conference today, I’m starting to think he should be ready for it.

One can understand why Peters wishes to play his cards close to his chest. You can’t negotiate in public. He played the Sphinx all throughout the campaign — he’s hardly going to abandon that approach now.

But today’s irascible performance is a reminder about governing with New Zealand First. Under the scrutiny that comes with power, the party’s dysfunction and internal contradictions will come to the fore. And, as it starts to flail about, Mr. Peters will flail about — as he did today.

When the embarrassments come, the parties associated with him will be damned by association. The political reality is that they will be forced to spin, defend and minimise on their partner’s behalf. This will become a weeping sore and eventually a gaping wound in the side of the lead government party.

Remember when Parliament censured Peters in 2008 over the Owen Glenn donation? National, the Maori Party, ACT, the Greens, United Future and the then two independents supported the motion. New Zealand First was opposed (natch).

And so was Labour. I guess that’s just what you have to do when you’re in power with Winston Peters.

Last Saturday, National won a strong plurality of the votes. It looks like it will be the third largest of the MMP era. And, for reasons I have laid out elsewhere, he now has a strong personal mandate to lead the National Party.

Had that plurality been a lot smaller or — worse — had Labour taken the lead, then it would be Winston or bust for English. He would have been a two-time loser then. There’s no way National would have tolerated him staying on as anything other than a caretaker.

But English is quite safe now. Freed from the danger of being toppled, he could let Labour cobble a temporary majority together. Jacinda Ardern can be the one to answer for whatever Winston Peters and his disciples do. At the head of the largest party in Parliament, never more than a few by-elections away from a change in power, it would be a strong opposition right from the start.

And, if history is anything to go by, 2020 could be a happy hunting ground for whoever “loses” the battle for Winston’s affections.

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