OPINION: Anyone who kids themselves that there is life after Winston Peters for NZ First only had to watch the party floundering in the absence of its leader this week.
Frantically trying to head off an attack by their former colleague, expunged NZ Firster Brendan Horan, Peters' front bench achieved the seemingly impossible feat of making Horan look good by comparison.
They were clueless in the face of Horan's determination to extract utu from his former party by tabling documents he claimed showed improper use of the taxpayer funded leader's fund.
Whether the documents do show what Horan claims remains to be seen; the Speaker is investigating although the explanation offered by Peters suggests the spending complies with the rules. But we know from long experience that politicians have a collective interest in not inquiring too deeply into the use of leaders' funds.
There is certainly no reason to be confident that they have cleaned up their act since an Audit Office inquiry several years ago found most parties treated it as a slush fund for party political activities. (NZ First was one of the parties pinged for unlawful spending to the tune of $158,000).
Regardless of the ins and outs of Horan's allegations, however, one thing seems clear: Horan is hellbent on using his last remaining months in Parliament to try to take Peters and the rest of NZ First down with him.
Even if he succeeds he will only be hastening by a few years what increasingly seems inevitable.
With its leader knocking 70, NZ First is a clock that has been slowly winding down since the 1996 election delivered Peters the balance of power.
The core team around Peters back then was a new generation of swaggering and smart young Maori MPs who might have ensured the party's survival. Peters' greatest flaw as a politician has been his inability to hold on to any of them or, for that matter, the MPs who followed.
Since the original caucus bustup back in 1997, he has surrounded himself with increasingly eccentric and obscure MPs to fill the seats vacated by the older and wiser heads he managed to burn off over the years. Of his current caucus, only one - the nanna-like Barbara Stewart - is carried over from the 2005-2008 parliamentary term (NZ First spent a term out of Parliament).
Since the party's return in 2011, Parliament has been collectively holding its breath waiting for the current team to implode given some of the more eccentric selections - like former North Shore mayor Andrew Williams, notorious for urinating in a public place.
The implosion hasn't happened yet but there have been plenty of flaky moments. Richard Prosser launched a diatribe against Muslims that prompted hundreds of complaints to the NZ First board. The party's Pasifika MP, Asenati Lole-Taylor, famously asked questions of the police minister in Parliament about blow jobs and has carved out a cult following on Twitter for her bizarre outbursts. Her most recent was to accuse a press gallery journalist of cyber bullying after he referred to her "shooting the messenger". Lole-Taylor thought he was alleging she had shot an actual parliamentary messenger. Horan, meanwhile, was dumped from the party over allegations of missing money from his dead mother's estate.
Horan's bitterness over his expulsion from the party is probably made even more visceral for his belief in himself as the obvious successor to Peters. A former TV weather presenter, Horan was noted for making sure he was always in screen shot when Peters was stopped on the way to the House.
Peters' dislike for his former MP, meanwhile, seems to run particularly deep, with his attack in Parliament on Horan as New Zealand's "Jimmy Savile" - a reference to Britain's celebrity child molester - plumbing the depths of personal attack.
It is reminiscent of the late National prime minister Rob Muldoon's attack on Mangere MP Colin Moyle over his "effeminate giggle", a coded reference to homosexuality.
MPs are now bracing for what they believe will be the nastiest campaign ever.
There has been plenty of evidence so far it will be dirty; Green MP Jan Logie has been vilified on social media for her tweet stating: "John Key says Bill English has produced as many budgets as children . . . begs the question who he has f ... d to produce it" [sic].
Logie is not the only offender. Remember National MPs Anne Tolley and Judith Collins attacking Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei for her $1000 jackets and being out of touch with the poor? Or Labour MP Trevor Mallard calling Chris Finlayson "Tinkerbell"? But such behaviour is hardly new. In past Parliaments we have had punchups, Judith Collins labelling Labour MP David Benson Pope a pervert, Labour's various attempts to smear John Key - including the H-bomb debacle - and in return National spent most of the 2005 campaign labelling Helen Clark a liar and likening her to despot Robert Mugabe.
The difference these days is that social media and the 24/7 digital news environment magnifies such behaviour a thousand-fold.
The reason the politicians are rubbing their hands in glee, however, is that nastiness on the campaign trail inevitably boomerangs on the politician pushing the button, which is why parties are tripping over themselves to accuse each other of playing in the dirtiest pool.
When Labour leader David Cunliffe told a Rotorua audience that John Key was a liar, for instance, the prime minister's office was delighted. After the story was moved from the Stuff.co.nz home page because of concerns about a lack of balance, Key's office complained to Fairfax.
It would have preferred the headline labelling Key a liar to remain online all day if possible. In its view, it did far more damage to Cunliffe than it did to Key. Only in politics does the seemingly absurd make such perfect sense.
- The Dominion Post