Dodging landmines takes toll on Key

Prime Minister John Key loves head-to-head  debates, and with good reason – they have always smiled on him.

In 2005, Key made a name for himself as National’s rookie finance spokesman when he went up against Labour’s super-smart Michael Cullen and won.

In 2008, he was a breath of fresh air in contrast to Helen Clark’s stale leadership – a spark of optimism amid the gloom that helped hasten the sense of urgency to change the government. 

Labour was probably already toast by then, but for some, seeing Key perform during those debates helped make up their minds.

In 2011, it was The  Press debate that delivered the defining moment of the campaign when Key floored then Labour leader Phil Goff with the line, ‘‘Show me the money’’.

The Key who turned up to debate David Cunliffe in the first televised clash of the campaign this week was a  different  man. 

Jaded is not a word that sits easily on Key. Even after six years and some of the hardest times in government that any leader could face, he mostly manages to look  like he is enjoying it. 

But whether  because of  the horror start to his campaign,  endless days defending his Government against dirty-tricks allegations or – more likely – the fact that some of the ugliness was turned against his daughter, Key looked like he had had enough. 

There was none of his trademark disarming humour, the trait that endears him most to Kiwis; that ability to label his opponents a bunch of muppets and come across as affectionate rather than vindictive or spiteful.

One of the questions people most often ask journalists who spend a lot of time watching Key is, ‘‘What is he really like?’’  

The answer is usually, ‘‘What you see is what you get’’. People instinctively know that, which helps explain Key’s enduring popularity.

So it is not particularly believable that Key’s demeanour on Thursday was a deliberate strategy, as senior Nats tried to claim late on Thursday.  

That strategy, apparently, was to give the Labour leader  enough rope to overreach himself, as he has a habit of doing.  Certainly if Cunliffe got one thing wrong in an otherwise impressive first outing in Thursday’s debate it was just that; he interrupted Key just enough to annoy people.

But Key’s demeanour more likely reflected the truth. It’s been a hard campaign on the prime minister and there are still three weeks to go. 

In between the shopping malls, factory visits and childcare centres there are constant unexploded landmines. Judith Collins, Nicky Hager, Kim Dotcom. Key’s schedule, meanwhile, seems frenetic compared with his rival’s meandering approach. 

Journalists on the campaign trail with Cunliffe complain about his long lunch breaks, disorganised –  almost chaotic – policy announcements and purposeless shopping mall walkabouts, where Cunliffe makes only the barest acquaintance with shoppers. 

In contrast, Key is mobbed wherever he goes.

But Key also has the burden of incumbency; he was expected to perform in Thursday’s debate. 

Cunliffe was the unknown quantity and had nothing to lose.  

After months of poor polls, Labour has largely been written off.  Is it already too late to turn that around? 

If Cunliffe grabs his eleventh-hour opportunity by the scruff of the neck, maybe not. But that will be a big ask – of the party, not just Cunliffe.

The Hager book and its dirty-tricks allegations are said to have mobilised the party’s activists. Their presence is crucial to Labour’s turn-out-the-voters efforts. 

But the Labour Party machinery is still far from fighting fit.

Cunliffe’s MPs are hunkered down in their electorates, fighting tooth and nail to hold on to their seats in the knowledge that they could otherwise be out of a job come September 21. 

It is always danger time when MPs  try to build a fortress around their electorate. It means the party-vote message is getting lost.

Billboards seen on the campaign trail so far reinforce the impression that the electorate vote is the important one.  Meanwhile, the only thing holding many of Cunliffe’s MPs back from white-anting him over the lacklustre campaign  is the knowledge that it would make it harder to roll him in the event of an election defeat.

Under Labour’s new leadership rules, the party membership could easily reinstall Cunliffe even in the face of a near revolt against him by the caucus, especially if it believes the caucus actively undermined him.

That is why Cunliffe has been so gung-ho about staying on after the election even if he loses. He is banking that the membership will give him another three years regardless. 

There have even been mutterings that his approach to the election suggests he has written off 2014 with the view he will get another crack at it in three years, when Key’s star is likely to have fallen.

But Thursday’s debate should put paid to that talk. It was a sign that Cunliffe is desperately trying to turn his campaign around.  

It is a sure bet that Key will be just as determined. Which means the stakes couldn’t be higher than when they next meet at The Press/ leaders’ debate in Christchurch on Tuesday night.