Mate, has Winston put the Conservatives in check?

Winston Peters has just moved his King to East Coast Bays and put Labour and the Greens' capital gains tax pawns under threat...proof that New Zealand First is still a player

With holidays over, party conferences held, and the final two weeks of this term's parliament commencing, the parties have just about all laid out their pieces for the campaign chess game ahead.

Sure, there are plenty of plays yet to be made and tactics to be tried, but the pieces are by and large laid out for all to see. National and Labour, for example, have agreed to be fenced in by Treasury's $1.5 billion spending cap – National for ideological reasons, Labour because it wants voters to trust its economic cred. The minor parties (even the major minors), however, are playing on a different field, as evidenced by New Zealand First's $3 billion GST removal and the Green's $1 billion R&D plan.

Labour is offering an openly interventionist but hardly very left-wing agenda, despite its failure to communicate that. Articulated by a leader with more popular appeal and more internal support (and by a party that was actually hungry to win) Labour has a policy package that could have wide public appeal. If the party wasn't so defensive and ill-disiplined it might not be down to 27 percent in our updated Poll of Polls, thereby making swing voters' fear of Internet-Mana less significant.

But as it stands, it's telling that 59 percent of voters (and 47 percent of Labour voters) don't want Internet-Mana forming a coalition with Labour. Only 29 percent say yes (40 percent of Labour voters). Labour's latest slide coincided with some Labour slip-ups, but also the Internet-Mana merger and I've wondered what impact that may be having on centrist support for Labour. The Greens have spent years earning the trust of those voters to make a Labour-Greens coalition palatable to what Don Brash called "mainstream" voters. Internet-Mana seem to put the frighteners up them.

Many ask why commentators point to the influence of the farther left, but not that of the farther right on National. Simple: National is by far the dominant player in that relationship and would need to concede little in coalition talks; Labour would be weaker and need to offer more. Second, voters can see exactly how John Key's National deals with coalition partners and how much is given away. It's not that much and they can live with it. What would Labour concede to Internet-Mana? Who knows.

But in this multi-handed chess game, the two major parties only have so many pieces. And New Zealand First this weekend showed it still has the ability to change the game.

Yes, there was Peters' typically populist and expensive policy. The GST off basic food (whatever that is) brings him roughly – and oddly – in line with Labour three years ago (but not today) and the party he spends much time attacking, the Maori Party. The clamp down on tax evasion is something Labour has already stressed as vital and which National already says it's doing.

The most telling policy was a rejection of capital gains tax (while he's often criticised such a tax in the past, he's never ruled it out before).To be precise, he said:

"New Zealand First says no, unless you show me what you’re going to do about compensating for capital losses".

Instead, he'll introduce a capital gains tax just for foreigners. It'll be interesting to see how Labour and the Greens respond, because on the surface it looks like a deal-breaker between those three parties. Labour needs to income from a CGT to pay for its programme and the Greens have long been committed to one. It's a potential line in the sand.

Then there was East Coast Bays and Winston Peters' threat to stand there, especially if National does a deal with the Conservatives. It is a brilliant move – putting Craig in check. Oh, Peters may well be all talk. But is National willing to bet the next three years on that?

The Nation spent some time in each of the three 'deal seats' in recent weeks and played its report this weekend. It's interesting to note that Jane Clifton thinks Murray McCully would hate giving up his electorate and a deal is unlikely there. The seat's former Social Credit MP Garry Knapp reckons voters there wouldn't be maleable as they are in Epsom. Voters could be confused, resistent and it could all go horribly wrong for National. And that was before the Peters factor.

If Peters stood there, there's no guarantee he'd win. In fact it would require National to take McCully off the ballot and tell voters clearly and deliberately to vote for Craig. Even then it'd be a lottery. Would National want to pay the price of such an intimate connection with the Conservatives? Unlikely, as the votes it could be gaining from the Conservatives it would be likely to lose from its own support in the form of an anti-Conservative reaction in the middle.

If Key had thought he'd decided what to do about Craig during his Hawaii sojourn, he may well be thinking again. And again, Peters put himself back in the centre of the game.

But why's he doing this? Easy. Peters hates Craig and fears him. Craig is targetting New Zealand First voters, he's trying to become a Peters doppleganger, he see himself and his party as the heir to the New Zealand First legacy and expects to take its place as parliament's fourth largest party.

But to do that he needs to break into parliament, and Peters is doing his best to stop that from happening. This move may make a deal from National impossible, and with the Conservatives seemingly stuck below three percent this year it could be game over for Craig.The hope for Craig is that, as in 2011, the polls are under-estimating his appeal. Perhaps he's closer to five percent than it seems.

Still, so much comes down to how and where Key wants to place his bet.