John Key’s problems over the last week and a half have been entirely of his own making, and the cunning that reduced his opponents in number and strength seems to have abandoned him.
The question, why is the Prime Minister still in contact with the odious Cameron Slater? Is being asked repeatedly in the opinion pages of news papers, and on television. There still hasn’t been a suitable answer beyond “Oh, I give my cell phone number out to a lot of journalists.” Firstly, that comes as news to the many political reporters who didn’t get the memo with the new number, and secondly Cameron Slater is not a journalist. Saying he is is like saying a letter opener is really a chainsaw. Slater is a tabloid blogger, nothing more.
Does he have dirt on the Prime Minister? Probably, but I don’t think that is the reason Key won’t turn his back. Slater is a prominent part of the extreme right-wing faction that accounts for a chunk of the caucus, and its donor base. Since 2008 the factions of the Labour Party have been continually visible and occasionally warring, while National’s have been silenced by the reality of executive power. Now, under Andrew Little, Labour’s factions have disappeared for the moment, and it is starting to look again like a cohesive entity.
John Key understands the line in Netflix’s House of Cards, “Friends make the worst enemies.” As much as John Key does not want the contagious Slater as a friend, he sure as hell doesn’t want him as an enemy. What makes things even more difficult is that Slater is as unpredictable as North Korea, and has a temper to match. He says and does things on impulse, which is what makes him such a pointed and persistent blogger, and renders him a danger not only to others, but to himself.
Key probably thought giving his cell phone number to Slater was low risk, and would smooth his ego as he can brag that he has the ear of the PM. Since he deletes his texts every day, Key probably felt in control of the communication, alas not. Slater is a huge liability to the government which has won the last three elections on the centre ground, which drifts further away as the stench of Whale Oil gets stronger.
Usually, Key would be able to deflect in the way he is trying to do now, and would succeed. But he’s picked the wrong person to focus on. He has tried to make the story about Phil Goff’s leaking the SIS report. This bait and switch has not worked for two main reasons. Phil Goff is no longer a viable target. He’s not leader, and hurting him does not truly hurt Labour. Also, John Key’s outrage over the leak is unconvincing since he allowed serial leaker Peter Dunne back into his ministry. His standing is compromised in this way, and to top it off he’s up against Andrew Little whose history is unknown, and thus he can’t be hit with ‘he said this once and did that’.
As Little settles into the job of Leader of the Opposition this virginal shield will disappear, but for the moment the timing was perfectly in his favour as he rained righteous scorn over the government. Key cannot correct his ship until he deals with the hole beneath its waterline, that is Slater.