WEEKEND REVIEW: Matthew Hooton: Nats to reject Act deal in Epsom

The greatest remaining risk to John Key's re-election is his handling of Act in Epsom.

The greatest remaining risk to John Key’s re-election is his handling of Act in Epsom.

It’s been assumed that Rodney Hide holding Epsom for Act helps National. In fact, careful analysis of forecast party vote indicates that if Mr Hide wins Epsom, National will only be able to govern with coalition partners. If Act leaves Parliament, Mr Key and National will be able to govern alone.

Mr Hide’s situation is desperate. Polling suggests he would lose Epsom by as much as 30 points even if National stuck a blue rosette on Donald Duck. Further probing suggests that even if Mr Key instructed Epsom voters to back Mr Hide he may not prevail.

The only scenario pollsters have identified where Mr Hide might scrape in would be if National voters believed (a) that National couldn’t remain in government without Mr Hide and (b) that it would be certain to stay in government with him.

Most probably prompted by such data, Mr Hide and his Wellington aide Peter Keenan approached the Prime Minister’s office proposing that Mr Key interfere in the local National Party selection to impose a senior minister as candidate.

The idea was that the minister would have the reassurance of a high list ranking and would default the seat to Mr Hide. Trade minister Tim Groser’s name has emerged.

As well as being impertinent, the Hide/Keenan proposal is against National’s interests in every respect.

First, such a cynical deal would be an enormous boost to Labour’s themes of tails wagging dogs and secret far-right agendas. After the chicanery around Labour’s list, National would forgo the moral high ground.

The toxicity of Act’s brand is now such that National’s co-operation with it does not increase the overall centre-right vote but turns a greater number of centrist voters to Labour than Act brings to the table.

Second, a prime ministerial imposition of the Hide/Keenan deal would cause dissent in the Auckland National Party, where Mr Key needs every hand on deck.

In Epsom, party members want the right to choose their own candidate and have a local National MP, and a strong field of locals, including electorate chairman Aaron Bhatnagar, Parnell businessman Tom Bowden, former city councillor Paul Goldsmith, ex-UnitedFuture president Denise Krum, and long-serving party stalwart Scott Simpson, is emerging.

Even worse, were National to submit to the Hide/Keenan proposal, a general shuffling of National’s Auckland line up would be needed.

This would include crucial West Auckland seats such as New Lynn, where, ironically, Mr Groser has built up a strong personal following after beating Labour’s David Cunliffe for the 2008 election-night party vote.

The National Party and centre-right voters in New Lynn want Mr Groser back. They would be no more impressed than the people of Epsom in having an outsider imposed on them as part of a dodgy deal.

The third problem is that Mr Groser would probably win Epsom anyway. After living with Christine Fletcher and Richard Worth, and then suffering Mr Hide, Epsom people would relish the opportunity to have an MP of Mr Groser’s calibre. Labour, Green and other voters would also be told by their parties to tick Groser.

 The Winston factor
These are only the start of the risks to National of the Hide/Keenan proposal.

Were it clear National was playing silly buggers in Epsom, Winston Peters would put his name forward.

With the media having already decided the general election is over, hordes of TV cameras and journalists would descend on the Hide/Groser/Peters circus.

Mr Peters would lose but winning would not be his intention. The publicity would push his party above 5% nationally and make a Labour/Green/NZ First/Maori Party/Harawira government feasible.

The Hide/Keenan proposal is the one thing that could make Phil Goff prime minister.

 New right party
Wise heads in National are now preparing to give Act the bad news, with only one remaining argument in favour of capitulating to Mr Hide and Mr Keenan: that while such a deal might risk the 2011 election, National may need Act in 2014.

The opposite is true.

Act is so discredited as a serious political force that talks have been held about a credible new party on the right. The most important factor preventing it has been doubts that Mr Hide and his dwindling band would co-operate by folding Act’s remnants into a new structure.

Two parties to the right of National, competing for the same votes, would each doom the other.

Plan B is now in play. It involves Act being put out of its misery in 2011 so that a credible new party has three years to establish itself before 2014.

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