English on top but facing a stronger Labour

National operates on the principle that in politics there is only first place because that is where the power is. So assume Bill English is prepared to pay what it takes to get Winston Peters on board.

Peters meanwhile has adopted his habitual sphinx-like position. It may be some time before we know for sure the government makeup.

National’s 46.0% election night party vote is by any measure extraordinary after three terms and in a proportional system.

That means English needs only New Zealand First for a majority. Jacinda Ardern needs a three-way deal.

But the win English has been celebrating is qualified. Think of Labour and the Greens as an informal coalition and National’s lead drops from 10.2% to 4.3%.

And if the 384,000 specials fall as differently from the election night count as in 2014, when National lost 1.1 percentage points between election night and the final count, that lead could drop to 2%-3%.

If things go wrong — as they did for the most recent fourth term governments, after the 1946 and 1969 elections — that slim lead could quickly evaporate.

And if the government slides and New Zealand First is part of it, its party might drop below 5% next election, as after its two coalition deals in 1996 and 2005.

Moreover, how would Peters, who wants net immigration cut to one-seventh its present level, work with English, whose vaunted GDP growth slips to near zero on a per capita basis, that is with immigration taken out? That is just one problematic area.

Better to go with Labour-Greens? If you had to assign New Zealand First conference delegates to National or Labour, most would go Labour. The same majority applies to its policies.

But the fact that New Zealand First’s support halved after Ardern was made leader might mean its residual supporters are mostly National-leaning.

Whichever way Peters goes — and one option is to stay out of government and just abstain on confidence and supply motions — there is a whiff of the British election in June.

Labour has climbed far higher than anyone expected just two months back, as British Labour did. The National-to-Labour two-party swing was 9.8% (election night to election night).

And, as Theresa May was stripped of her majority, English has been stripped of two of his compliant tiddler parties and the third, ACT, is knackered: even in leader David Seymour’s Epsom seat it scored only 565 party votes, behind fifth-placed Opportunities.

Labour is now positioned strongly for the next election, with a bigger caucus and able new MPs. The Greens, the July disaster behind them, should be able to consolidate. Ardern and James Shaw are a very presentable pair.

But Labour has work to do on its “base” vote. The only seats where the swing was from Labour to National on the party vote were Mangere and Manukau East and next-door Manurewa’s swing to Labour was tiny. In west Auckland the swing was also light.

These areas used to be solid Labour. Now Labour looks stronger in seats with concentrations of university students and social liberals, like Wellington Central, Auckland Central, Mt Albert and Dunedin North, which all had swings from National well above the average.

An aside: Labour beat National on the party vote in Nelson, pointing Nick Smith towards the door.

The door also beckons for Peters, 72. But first a decision as to who governs. Which might take some time.