The real story behind John Key's darkest days as PM

00:38, Jun 30 2014

So the new book on John Key reveals his toughest time as prime minister emerged amid the furore over the teapot tape saga.

I'm not surprised, election campaigns are brutal and only the tough survive. The weak and vulnerable get broken.

This is an unauthorised story about what Key is really like when the cameras have stopped rolling.

Campaigns are gruelling and sometimes you just need to stop for a cuppa and catch your breath (and send a clear signal to people in Epsom about tactical voting).

Key's cup of tea with John Banks at the Newmarket Cafe during the 2011 election campaign was a heavily stage-managed affair, with media invited to get some pictures then told to bugger off outside and watch through the window.

It was all over pretty quickly, Epsom voters got the message, and the media headed off.


A day or two later it became clear there was an inadvertent secret tape recording of their conversation, captured by cameraman Bradley Ambrose's microphone, which had been left at the table when we all stomped outside. I was TV3's political editor at the time and obtained a copy of the recording from Ambrose.

It quickly became public knowledge that TV3 had a copy and it gave Key and his advisers a real fright. The prime minister rang me repeatedly, curious as to what exactly was on it. It's fair to say he and his spin doctors were shitting themselves.

He was most concerned that he had sworn and used the F-bomb - not once, but on a number of occasions.

He hadn't. But he was awfully worried how that might look. It's not unusual for political leaders to regularly call journalists (Helen Clark was prolific). Key learned that from her.

The tape was largely unremarkable - Key and Banks talked about replacing Don Brash as leader - a woman might be good, one of them muttered. There was talk about Winston Peters and his voters. They're all dying anyway, said the prime minister. So yeah, perhaps it was disrespectful - they certainly wouldn't have said all this had they known it was being recorded.

It took a day or two to work out what was on the tape. It was largely inaudible.

We matched-up the sound with the footage from our cameras and asked a lip-reader from the Deaf Foundation to see if she could make any sense of it . . . she was none the wiser as she left the building.

Looking at it now it seems unremarkable, but in the heat of the election battle everything is magnified.

That's why this was a story. How the prime minister handled it became the story. He called in the cops to shut the media down. Key and his party intimidated our organisations. The Government reminded us about the law and what might happen if we broke it and broadcast the tape. No one was talking policy - we were talking tapes. Labour leader Phil Goff didn't get a mention for two weeks - he became irrelevant.

I challenged Key at a Wellington event, with cameras rolling, as to why he was so concerned about the tapes and why he believed media couldn't and shouldn't broadcast them. Key stormed out of the press conference. He judged that the public were more interested in policy than dirt. He was probably right, and won the election.

My boss even received a deputation from a senior National Party campaign organiser (now a Cabinet minister) to let us know how disappointed they were in us.

Once Key was re-elected prime minister he dropped the police action. It was no longer necessary. But all this had hurt Key. His management of the matter was poor.

National dropped seven points in six weeks during the campaign.

Now he's revealed in the new book that he almost quit over the teapot tape saga. I believe him. He told me that was the worst two weeks of his political career. But he also needs to take responsibility for it too.

He made the decision to have the stupid cup of tea. He made the decision to invite media then claim it was private. He made the decision to go to the police.

It's highly unlikely you'll see such a clanger from Key and his colleagues during this year's campaign.

Yes they are high in the polls. But it will close up. Key and his mates have written the script for this year. The only part missing is whether they do a deal with Colin Craig and whether they can get through the election campaign without some sort of dirty tricks campaign.

One National MP sent me a text this week, ahead of this weekend's National Party conference in Wellington.

It read: "Already been told not to say anything and to be on guard at the conference. MPs told not to say shit."