The tricks Key might have to turn

After the 2005 election Helen Clark swiftly stitched a deal with Winston Peters, the man who had spurned her in 1996. It kept her in office but it was like swallowing a dead rat, colleagues said privately.

John Key and Bill English have been working out how to swallow dead rats and telling their activists to prepare for it.

Around their party’s regional conferences in April-May, English pumped the Clark gospel: only by dealing with small parties, however un-National, can the big parties govern.

This means not only ACT and United Future, which mesh readily with National, but New Zealand First, the Greens and the Maori party.

National’s marriage to New Zealand First in 1996 ended in tears. Nationalists wanted “National blue” instead of “coalition grey”, even, for some, if it meant being in opposition. Coalition memories are long.

The Greens’ and Maori party’s constituencies are much nearer Labour than National — actually for the most part on the opposite side of Labour from National.

Nevertheless, Key and English have been seriously chatting up those parties as well as the two friendly ones.

They got some early results in the autumn, in part because the small parties had registered the cabinet’s hesitancy and missteps, did not want to be harnessed to that in the public mind and realised they had potential influence, especially if acting together and/or with National. State funding of parties’ election campaigns was knocked on the head, for example.

The Key-English motive is to build personal relationships and some trust in advance. Then after the election, when the pressure and the media glare are intense and supporters’ emotions can run hot, a deal can be done even with unlikely parties.

Here’s the arithmetic. If New Zealand First is in the next Parliament it will be because it gets more than 5% of the vote and so at least six seats. Put that together with, say, two each from ACT and United Future and National needs only 51 seats to build a majority.

For that National would need only around 42%-43% of the vote, maybe less, depending what the other small parties get and the size of the “wasted vote” for parties which don’t get seats. (The wasted vote was 1.3% in 2005.)

National would also need to get more votes than Labour but at 42% of the vote that would be almost certain.

Take New Zealand First out of the equation — if, say, Clark and Peters agreed three years in London’s leafy Kensington as High Commissioner would be a suitable cap to his scintillating career, or if his vote just biodegraded.

Then Labour plus the Greens and the Maori party would make a majority. Alternatively, National would have to get 46%-47% to form a government with only ACT or United Future — or get either the Greens or the Maori party onboard.

Neither of those parties would sensibly do a support deal with National because their core supporters would abhor it — just as New Zealand First’s core support, expecting before the 1996 election a deal with Labour, caned Peters for going with National after the election.

This is not academic. When Peters goes and when Peter Dunne goes, their parties go. ACT’s hold on seats is tenuous. English reckons, with some reason, that by the 2011 or 2014 election there could be just four parties — three of them usually considered “left”.

So National needs to lay the groundwork now to deal with those parties, he says, and doing trades after the 2008 election which National supporters and activists do not like. Clark and Michael Cullen did exactly that after the 2005 election.

That means, English bluntly told regional conference delegates in May, National will in government have to “implement policies you don’t agree with based on agreements with people you don’t like.

“That’s the reality of MMP politics.”

In case they didn’t get the message he personalised it: “I hope you are not going to rather be in opposition than do a deal with Hone Harawira” or “sandal-wearing” Greens.

Harawira, the rumbustious Maori sovereignty protester of yore, is a very big ask for Nationalists.

But there is some basis for agreement: property rights, for example, a notion trashed by National when it pumped up majority fears over the foreshore and seabed in 2003-04, but which liberals in the party are reviving.

Principles can have a place. Even while swallowing dead rats. That’s MMP.