OPINION: ACT is now so discredited that even some on the Right Wing are likening Rodney Hide's stand in Epsom to Hitler's last days in the bunker.
Which might explain why Prime Minister John Key's nod and a wink in the direction of an accommodation with ACT in 2011 drew more puzzled looks than is usual among a commentariat that is well used to interpreting such signs.
Given the hopelessness of Mr Hide's cause, National's longstanding ambivalence - verging on antipathy - towards ACT, and the probability that National may not need the minor party anyway on current polls, why would Key do it?
The idea that National props up ACT - and Hide in particular - has become repugnant to many National supporters. On the streets of Epsom Hide's name is said to be mud among most female voters. Why not do a Labour and throttle ACT in much the same way Helen Clark did to the Alliance in 2002?
Theories and rumours are as plentiful as a breezy day in Wellington. That will only intensify after former National leader Don Brash confirmed at the weekend he was poised to make a political comeback as leader of the ACT party - if they would have him. Given the alternatives - certain electoral defeat chief among them - they would be mad not to.
He may be polarising, but Brash's electoral allure is such that he could potentially take ACT above the 5 per cent threshold to survive in Parliament. He took National within a whisker of victory in 2005 and many of National's new MPs were drawn to the party by the Brash leadership.
Should former Auckland mayor John Banks join the Brash ticket as the party's Epsom candidate - and there is speculation he would jump at the offer if asked - the party would shore up its prospects by taking an electoral seat as well.
Should Key's comments about Epsom be read in that light? Hide insists polls showing Banks, and even Winston Peters, would easily beat him in Epsom are as dodgy as a 9-bob note. He still clings to the belief that he could win, which suggests he is no longer in touch with reality, though he would argue his triumph over the polls in 2005 gives him better reason than most to dismiss them.
But Key's comments were surprising because even if Hide thinks he's still in with a chance in Epsom, no-one in National seriously believes that anymore - even if Key were to parade up and down Queen St wearing a sandwich board saying "Vote for Rodney".
It had long been accepted that asking Epsom voters to hold their nose and tick Hide risked doing the National brand more damage than it promised to help ACT.
ACT's woes are many and legion - Hide's refusal to see anything wrong with his law and order spokesman David Garrett stealing a dead baby's identity; his total lack of remorse for charging the cost of overseas travel with his girlfriend (now wife) back to the taxpayer; the grandstanding during coalition negotiations, the various bungled attempts to bring the ACT leadership issue to a head, and the unpopular super-city legislation among them. If the party were a horse, they'd shoot it.
In fact, that was precisely the thinking among many on the Right for much of the year.
Brash's move comes after months of rumours that a new Right-wing party might emerge from the ACT debacle.
But despite all the talk swirling around, no- one seemed capable of getting a credible alternative Right-wing vehicle off the ground. The fledgling Reform Party hasn't looked like much to date - just a loose coalition of disgruntled ex- ACT members and people with special interest bandwagons.
Brash is potentially one of the few who could rally a sizeable force behind him fairly rapidly and also attract the level of dosh that is needed to get a new party off the ground. The turning point in Dr Brash's thinking appears to have been talk that the Government intends scrapping his cherished 2025 taskforce, whose ideas National ministers have collectively pooh-poohed.
But so long as a heart continued to beat within ACT, launching a new party was always a high-risk option. It would be battling against the famously stubborn and thick-skinned Hide, who would have the advantage of a platform in Parliament and a guaranteed seat around the table at the televised leaders' debates. Better to take over ACT and reinvent it from the inside out.
Expect the rebranding exercise to involve more than a change at the top if Brash succeeds in his ambitious gambit - a name change is also likely, though for now that seems to be closely under wraps.
An ACT board meeting this Saturday is likely to see things come to a head: Brash is believed to have some support on the board, though it is not clear how much. He is also believed to have had discussions with ACT deputy John Boscawen, who is crucial in deciding the leadership.
Ultimately, it will come down to the old saying "follow the money". If ACT's funders have decided to pull the pin on Hide, then the end is nigh.
A resurgent ACT party might take votes off National, but it also frees up National to move freely in the fertile centre ground, where both it and Labour compete for votes.
It might be a case of "with friends like these" . . . but in the MMP environment friends are the one thing neither of the major parties can do without.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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