I've just been internalising a really complicated situation in my head

The news declared that the National Party had had a 'historic' election victory on Saturday but, if that was true, National Party people would be looking happier. The reality is much more complicated

Here's the bullet-point version, to begin:

  • National won about the same number of votes it did three years ago (it got a higher percentage of the total vote owing to falling voter turnout)
  • National has an almost unmanageably thin majority in Parliament; party insiders are not at all happy
  • Winston Peters is back as a fly in the National Party's ointment, in a large part because John Key and Steven Joyce mucked up over the Epsom tea party
  • MMP is here to stay, meaning governments need to win a real majority and not just a high single party vote
  • 50% of voters voted against National, despite its popular leader
  • Many National votes were won because of its apparently easy-going and centrist leader, not because people necessarily support its policies
  • Well over 50% of the public opposes key National Party policies such as privatisation ('asset sales')
  • The ACT Party, National's most important coalition partner, died on election night
  • There are signs that National has passed the high point of its popularity and will now start to decline
  • There are signs that National leader John Key has passed the high point of his popularity and will now start to decline.
  • The coming three years will be the playing out of these things. It is going to be very different to National's first three years in government.

That's the summary. If you’d like the long version, read on.

Looking more closely, the most important issue is long-term trends in public opinion. This is clearly seen in John Key's behaviour, as it was with his predecessor as National Party leader, Don Brash. Both have found it necessary to present themselves as centrist politicians. This is not because they are, but because the basic values and beliefs of a majority of New Zealanders (on welfare, privatisation, environment and so on) are closer to Labour and the Greens than to National.

Key is not naturally centrist, as seen in his public statements earlier in his political career. But National leaders have no choice but to try to persuade the public that they are not right wing. Key has done this successfully to date, helped by the fact (in my opinion) that he doesn't believe very strongly in any policies and so can move quite easily as conditions require.

However the important point here is that National knows that its core policies and beliefs are not in accord with a growing majority of New Zealanders. It has been riding high on a cult of personality, not support for its policies. This unpalatable reality was discussed openly by Brash and his staff in documents reproduced in my book The Hollow Men (when John Key was Finance Spokesman).

For instance, National's main policy and strategy adviser, Peter Keenan, wrote: "I am a core supporter but if Don said all the things I personally like to hear, Don would be unelectable". He said: "In my view the problem is not lack of new policy, especially tough policy stances, but rather public perception of what National and Don Brash stand for – ie perceptions of existing policy, many of which are significant negatives... that will stop people voting... for us".

These negatives included "a worry that National under Don Brash means a return to the days of major reform, with privatisation, welfare cuts, spending cuts on core services, and another round of employment law reforms that will drive wages down". (Chapter 3, The Hollow Men).

It is the same today, where National and Key constantly need to woo a large section of the public who do not share the party's core beliefs and goals. This means that in future National is going to have more and more trouble constructing a majority coalition government.

The second and related issue facing National is its terribly thin majority in Parliament, which looks set to drop to a single seat after special votes (with Peter Dune and John Banks included).

People unfamiliar with Parliament could presume that a one-seat lead is enough. But the mechanics of running a government are more complex than that. Yes, they can (probably) win crucial votes. Yet a terrible friction slows down processes and there is much more scope for mischief and disruption. This is bad news for National. The bare 50% coalition achieved on Saturday (with virtually 50% against them), even when Key was at the height of his political support, is the reason Key has been moaning about the election results in the media: blaming the electoral system when his real problem is the lack of a natural majority coalition. Governing just got much less fun. (By the way, the Maori Party is therefore in a much stronger bargaining position than it was in the last three years. Watch to see if they realise this.)

The next factor is Winston Peters. I know a surprising number of people who had never voted for New Zealand First before but who did so this time to help curb the National Party's policies. The strangest result on election night was the 6.8% for New Zealand First, that did not vary through the evening as if the computer had frozen.

Voters showed in many ways in this election that they understand MMP and one of these was the determination of a sizable group to have Winston Peters in Parliament as a check on National's more unpopular policies. The only charismatic political leader in New Zealand, Peters is a good choice for this role and looks set to be a thorn in National's side.

There is another very important aspect to New Zealand First's electoral success. In 2008, part of the reason National won was because New Zealand First got under 5% support and therefore no MPs. Not only did this eliminate an effective opponent in Parliament, it gave National two extra seats when New Zealand First's 'wasted' votes were reallocated, making it easier for National to form a majority coalition. What few people seemed to realise was that knocking out Peters was a deliberate component of the National and ACT parties' election strategies.

Remember 2008? Winston was dogged by scandal for months (some deserved, some a beat up) all coming to a crescendo as voting day approached. He eventually got a little over 4% of the vote and therefore no seats in Parliament.

What was actually going on is that those two parties had decided it would be much harder to get the numbers to become government if New Zealand First got over 5% of the vote. There was almost no media comment on the obvious vested interests behind the anti-Winston campaign. More surprising is that various media organisations actively collaborated in the National-ACT campaign. It would have been different if the media had been initiating the investigations themselves (and more so if all parties had received the same scrutiny), but what was going on was a dodgy collaboration between National and ACT and the media organisations, with quite a few of the attacks fed to the media directly by ACT Party leader Rodney Hide.

National's 2008 success was built in part on these unscrutinised activities (I urge some insiders, from media or political parties, to pass on more details of this important story one day).

Exactly the same calculations were at work in the 2011 election, with National again hoping to increase its chances of winning by keeping New Zealand First out of Parliament. Once again quite a few media people joined a private campaign.

For instance, senior journalists in TVNZ talked openly (inside the organisation) about their determination to give Peters no publicity before the election and thereby stop him winning his way back. Various other media organisations seemed to take the same line. This unethical media boycott, as we now know, came unstuck thanks to the machinations of the person who had the most to lose from Winston's return: National leader John Key.

Key's poor judgement during the Epsom tea party saga gave Peters the publicity springboard he needed to return to Parliament with seven other NZ First MPs, which in turn helped National end up with its thin majority.

The Epsom tea party stuff-up is part of the reason John Key and National are feeling uncomfortable about their 'historic' victory. The blaming has already begun within National. Everything was going very smoothly until the tea party, people are saying, and the politicians they blame are Steven Joyce and John Key: they shouldn't have had the tea party at all, Key shouldn't have shot his mouth off with journalists all around and he only made matters worse by calling the Police and his other poor decisions afterwards. This is part of the emerging shift in Key's fortunes. As one insider said, the National Party never forgives failure.

The next issue is the electoral referendum. The win for MMP cements in place a proportional voting system and removes the threat of a return to the First Past the Post (FPP) system. This was by far the most important result on Saturday, enshrining a system where each person’s vote has equal value and groupings of politicians require the support of a majority of the voters to govern.

This, and the problem of National’s shrinking natural  support base, explains why John Key and various other National MPs publicly opposed MMP in the weeks before the referendum. MMP only gave National its fair share of seats in Parliament, not the far greater number it would have got under FPP or the FPP variant SM. (The last time National got 48% of the vote was in the 1990 election, when FPP delivered them 70% of the seats in Parliament, enabling the harsh Ruth Richardson reforms that in turn prompted the public to vote in the proportional MMP system three years later.)

Notice that although Key was by far the most popular politician in the election, most voters did not follow his advice on the MMP referendum. With MMP as with privatisation, Key's personal popularity does not translate into support for his policies.

By the way, election day went especially badly for the political manipulators Jordan Williams and Simon Lusk, spokesperson and campaign manager respectively of the anti-MMP lobby. They had used negative campaigning (scaremongering about Winston Peters and MMP), diversions (the size of Parliament) and misrepresentation (promoting the obscure SM system), and generally sowed confusion to try to swing voters against MMP, knowing all the time that if they succeeded the country would be back to the First Past the Post system. However, not only do they appear to have failed on this, their other recent manipulations also failed on election day. Williams and Lusk are the same two people who orchestrated Don Brash's takeover of the ACT Party leadership earlier this year. This misguided plan has probably helped to destroy the ACT Party.

The next important result of the election is its effect on the ACT Party. ACT has for a long time been made up of very different parts: some cynical remnants of 1980s and 90s free market politics mixed uneasily with idealistic people attracted to the idea of pure liberal policies. The idealists stayed loyal through years of Rodney Hide populism and political game playing and then through the gradual self-destruction of the parliamentary ACT caucus. Perhaps they believed that the Brash leadership coup would repair things and that the expedient of John Banks in Epsom was justifiable, but on election night, when all that was left was Banks, the idealists' view of ACT as a party of principle died. The socially-conservative party that will develop under Banks will be a totally different. 17 years after being established, ACT has died.

By the next election, the Maori Party may be effectively dead too. Most Maori Party supporters are not natural allies of National. In exchange for what ended up being little of substance in the foreshore and seabed legislation, Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia have got too close to National and have been used. This tragedy will also play out over the next three years,

Another element of the election worth mentioning is the careless use by the news media of the National party-linked bloggers David Farrar and Cameron Slater (‘Whale Oil’). Both bloggers affect independence (and, in Farrar’s case, this probably used to be partly true), but nowadays both act as tools of the National Party: spinning, smearing and releasing information in which the party does not want to be directly involved.

Farrar is the National Party’s main pollster and so is intimately tied into party business. Therefore it is surprising (no, thoughtless and stupid) of media organisations to use Slater as a regular source of news and Farrar as a commentator. Fairfax allowed Farrar to be one of its main election bloggers on the Stuff website leading up to the election and other media used him regularly to give comment. He was part of TVNZ’s election-night coverage. Using former politicians and party officers can be informative and useful for readers and viewers, but giving the status of commentator roles to current party officers and activists who are actively campaigning and spinning, especially at election time, is irresponsible and needs to stop.

Finally, before looking at what is coming for National, the last issue that should be mentioned is voter turnout. About a quarter of all registered voters did not vote this election: hundreds of thousands of people. When we include the people who did not even register to vote, the proportion of voting aged people dropping out of political participation is considerably higher. If MMP was the best news of the election, this is the worst. There are of course many contributing factors, some long-term, some particular to this election. The most worrying elements are the large and growing numbers of people put off or marginalised from politics. This needs much more thoughtful attention.

I will mention only one factor now. I believe, after my years studying the National Party and Republican party-style politics during research for my book The Hollow Men, that party strategists (and particularly right-wing party strategists) have been perfecting the arts not only of winning votes, but of discouraging groups of opposition-leaning voters from voting at all. This is may be an effective tactic (including leading people to feel cynical about politicians and politics so that they opt out), but it is immensely dangerous for a democratic country.

The National Party’s campaign had this feel about it: deliberately bland, lacking in policy, politicians refusing to front to other than soft media opportunities and so on. If it hadn’t been for the accident of the Epsom tea party, the whole election campaign risked attracting no attention, raising no passions and being easily forgotten or not bothered with on voting day. This needs much more analysis and thought.

Now, some predictions. For his two years as leader of the opposition and first three years in government, John Key had a dream run. Most journalists gave him an easy time. No problems or criticism seemed to stick to him. The rest of National seemed largely unassailable because of the popularity of their leader. All this carried through to this election. When many people party voted ‘National’, it was clearly Key’s face in their minds.

However, it feels that both National and Key passed the high point of their popularity during this election campaign. Barring major unforeseen events, they will now be on the way down. It is unlikely the news media will give them such an easy ride anymore and, just as the public did not follow Key on voting out MMP, it is unlikely to be persuaded on privatisation and other policies.

Only occasionally to date has the not-relaxed, not-friendly and not-centrist face of Key been seen in public; in other words, the real, ruthless and calculating side. But like nearly every political leader before him, public scepticism and weariness of Key have begun and will grow.

Key never appeared to be in politics for the long haul. When his popularity starts to slide he is unlikely to stick around and face defeat at the next election.

This means there is quite a high chance that National will go into the 2014 election with a new leader, with plenty of turbulence between now and then. Meanwhile we may be watching the last stage of millionaire John Key’s go at being a prime minister.