You can take it from John Key that John Banks has acted lawfully and behaved in a way that upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards. Because that is the standard that ministers are expected to uphold. Otherwise it is outski, on yer bike, or down the river in a cabbage boat.
So it follows that when Banks said publicly (as a minister) that he kept the funding of his mayoral campaign ''at arm's length'' he was adhering to those lofty ethical standards, in the judgment of the prime minister.
Never mind that the police found that Banks had solicited donations from Kim Dotcom and from an unnamed donor for radio advertisements and had accepted in person, in a sealed envelope, a $15,000 cheque from SkyCity's chief executive.
Though it stretches credulity, that, apparently, qualifies as ''at arm's length''.
Bill English yesterday set out the two tests being applied to Banks' ongoing role as a minister:
1) The police had decided not to prosecute, and 2) he retained the confidence of Key.
What is not clear is how he both adhered to the ''highest ethical standard'' and through his actions highlighted that the local electoral law - in Key's words - was "an ass" that you could drive a truck through.
After all, it was Banks at the wheel of the truck that barrelled through it.
Just how long Key will retain confidence in Banks is anyone's guess.
It's probably sensible to let the ACT board, or Banks himself, make the call given he is expected to signal well before the 2014 election that he is not interested in another term.
If he stood aside earlier, triggering a quick and tidy by-election in Epsom, the Government's majority (without the Maori Party) could be restored in short order.
But it is dangerous for any prime minister to defend an MP under a cloud, especially when that MP's vote is key to survival.
Helen Clark suffered from not cutting Taito Phillip Field loose earlier. She also stood by Winston Peters when the tide of public opinion was flowing the other way.
Last term Key may have been able to tough out the fallout from the Banks scandal, but times have changed.
The first Fairfax Media/Ipsos political poll showed the public mood beginning to sour on Key - a trend that has its origins in his handling of the Teapot Tapes and that infamous cuppa with Banks.
Key will also be assessing his future coalition options after 2014.
A terminally wounded ACT is not in National's interest.
It would much prefer that the party either thrives, and re-establishes its core liberal principles, or goes.
The field on the conservative Right is already crowded, with the Conservatives, and to a lesser extent NZ First, fishing in a limited pool of voters.
Unless one of them slings his hook, there is a risk none will cross the 5 per cent MMP threshold.
Yes, Key is defending Banks for now. But he is far from indispensable.
Follow Vernon Small on Twitter.
Post a comment