Bill makes history before heading into the Winston maze

With so much analysis it can be easy to miss the wood for the trees at this point. While there's still nothing certain about our next government, we can look back to look forward and recognise the historic nature of this result

It's the nature of MMP that as we try to make sense of the public will expressed in last night's results, that we dive into the entrails. We ponder paths to power and what might be in Winston Peter's mind. But in doing so we risk missing the headline number: 46.

Whichever way you cut it and whatever finally happens, Bill English and the National made history last night with a phenomenal result. Seeking an historic fourth term, National has won a greater percent of the vote than it when it came to power in 2008, when it won 44.9 percent.

I wrote on this blog last summer that for English to win he would have to do some remarkable. The great loser of 2002, who led his party to its worst result ever, would have to be the first substitute Prime Minister since Peter Fraser in 1938 to win an election. In the intervening years six others have tried to take over the reins and win again and all have failed.

Now English is not there yet. He has to negotiate the maze that is Winston Peters before he can make history. But he and his party are in a dominant position in any negotiations. As he said just about as soon as he got on stage last night - aimed at an audience of one - National has won nearly half the vote and 10 points more then their nearest rival.

The National Party core campaign team will be pinching themselves this morning. They would hardly have believed a 46 was possible a few weeks ago, even before the Jacinda Effect. 

In the past century (post Richard Seddon Liberals and Bill Massey's various Reform-led coalitions), New Zealand has only had two four-term governments. The first Labour government under Mickey Savage and then Peter Fraser achieved it, helped by the popularity of the new 'cradle to grave' welfare state it created and the misery of World War II. The Maori seats played a big role in Labour hanging on for a fourth go.

You can see some echoes of that government today, with English taking over from the popular John Key, as Fraser took over from Savage (albeit much earlier in the life cycle). English with his work on social investment - while to my mind still a long way short of Fraser's social revolution - is being discussed in some right-wing circles as a modern-day Fraser.

The second occasion was when Keith Holyoake did four terms on his own, back in the days when New Zealand lived off the sheep's back and was one of the wealtiest countries on the planet. Labour had been expected to win in 1969, but a (temporary) economic rebound after the wool price collapse in 1966 and a nimble new finance minister called Rob Muldoon - plus a bit of an industrial relations kerfuffle - allowed Holyoake to sneak through again.

Some considered a young Labour leader called Norm Kirk wasn't quite ready to rule. So one of the interesting questions now is whether Ardern could be Labour's next Kirk.

Because you know what happens after fourth terms, right? The other lot come throug strong. Fraser went from a four seat majority to a 12 seat loss in 1949. Kirk swept aside Holyoake's replacement Jack Marshall in 1972, 55 seats to 32.

As fascinating as it is to consider those ripples of history, let me say again, English isn't there yet. Just as campaigns can flounder or pivot, so can negotiations.

It will be very hard for New Zealand First to negotiate its way around a number as big as 46 without hitting the rocks, even if it was so inclined. But it's not impossible. Especially if that 46 shrinks significantly.

The specials could well come into play, and one of the weaknesses of this phase of our electoral system is that we ask our politicians to start negotiating power without, as Winston Peters likes to say, knowing all the cards in their hands.

Labour is hoping we may yet see something of a 'youthquake' in the special votes and that National could lose as much as two percent. Remember, specials include all those who enrolled and voted at the same time and Labour had been heartened by the turnout at universities around the country.

Two points off National and shared between Labour and the Greens (the latter typically get an extra seat from the specials, though they haven't faced the Jacinda Effect before) certainly gets into trouble territory for National, so it will be interesting to see how New Zealand First plays that.

Let's also not forget the cross-benches option. While the 'baubles of office', we assume, are too much of a motivation for Peters and his party, it's not impossible that his read of this election and the mood for change that Labour tapped into might best be navigated from outside of a concrete coalition.

Labour will certainly have plenty to offer a coalition partner, as it tries to negotiate the Winston maze. The Deputy Prime Ministership is a given, as Kelvin Davis is never going to work in that role. New Zealand First's key policy platforms of cutting immigration, re-framing our trade and economic relations in a more nationalistic manner and restoring funding to our public services would be much better served by Labour.

The initial results last night also suggest that Labour has returned to normal in its popularity in the cities and with Maori. They are back in Christchurch and ate into National's numbers in a lot of provincial cities. If New Zealand First sees its future as a party for the more rural regions, it may want to leave Labour to grow its vote in the cities while taking on National in the hinterland from a position of power. 

It's proper to note that Labour wrote its own bit of history, surging perhaps 12 points in the election campaign. That's a phenomenal leap in less than two months and Jacinda Ardern has put herself in the box seat to be Prime Minister in 2020, if it doesn't come together for her in the next few weeks.

While there's much talk about the possibility of National offering the kowhai branch to the Greens, it's nigh impossible for either party. Some in National long for the party to have partners to its left and right and to ride the blue-green wave. But how can National reward its farmer base that turned out so strongly for it this time with the Greens in tow? And, frankly, how could the Greens survive a dance with the right given its own base and after what Metiria Turei has done?

As Russel Norman said on RNZ last night, it would require 75 percent support at an AGM for a deal to be endorsed. That ain't gonna happen. And frankly, the Greens have their own internal ructions to deal with (ructions that will be played out publicly in a co-leadership contest). So not even.

Finally, the other bit of history is bad for everyone, except perhaps Willie Jackson. With the demise of the Maori Party, our parliament is less diverse. Sure, the Maori voices are still many, but the Maori Party's distinct kaupapa is lost for now, and that's something to regret. It'll be interesting to see how might rebuild the party, and how. The one bright spot for them is that a leadership team of Marama Fox and Lance O'Sullivan would be pretty darned appealing.

Right now the new campaign starts; the negotiation phase. And much will come down to a potent combination of personalities, policy and positions. By far the most likely outcome is a National-New Zealand First coalition (ACT won't be needed and David Seymour will have the chance to break free and rebuild on the right). But it's not certain. And even if it's what eventuates, exactly what sort of government that looks like and what mix of policies we're left with, is anyone's guess. Let phase two begin.