National's problems are entirely of their own making and come down to some bad decisions. But the real concern will be that it now seems the Prime Minister has been involved in a cover-up
Short term: It's been a terrible day for Todd Barclay. A day that started out with the Prime Minister fudging for you, but which is ending with the same PM keeping his distance and his career hanging by a thread. But longer term: It's been an even worse day for the 'Honest bill' brand.
Days like these are truth days. They are days when things happen quickly and political strategists don't have time to 'get ahead of the story'. Leaders are forced to make quick calls, which means the answers given are often less nuanced and more honest. No-one wants to get caught in a lie.
The days started with one bad decision and ended with another. We're yet to find out exactly who made those decisions, but it's fair to assume English will not be happy with them. Or with himself.
The day began with this excellent bit of investigation by Mel Reid at Newsroom. Electorate secretary Glenys Dickson had spoken out, confirming the rumours, that Barclay had used a dictaphone to record her at work. If he was not in the room for those recordings, that is illegal. What's more, Reid revealed the pay-out Dickson got was higher than usual because her privacy as breached and the pay-out had been topped by taxpayer funds from the Prime Minister's office.
How did Reid know this? She had an unredacted statement from police that said none other than Bill English had texted a National Party official telling him so.
So how to respond? This was the first decision of the day and, arguably, one of the worst in Bill English's long career.
Presumably confident they could bluff their way through the claims that Barclay had at least bullied staff and at worst illegally recorded them, English and his team decided to fudge. English said he could not recall who had told him about the recordings; not even if it was Barclay.
It was the same spin the government had used on this issue for over a year. But something had changed; Dickson was on the record now, there was a competing version of events and events sped up.
Barclay was also interviewed this morning and, in his unwarranted confidence, sunk himself and blew a hole below his leader's waterline. The first 10 seconds of this video scupper Barclay:
Journalist: Did you use a dictaphone to record one of your staff members?
Barclay: Look I've seen the allegations and I totally refute them
Another journalist: Todd, did you tell the Prime Minister that you had recorded Glenys Dickson?
Putting aside the misuse of the word "refute", his first answer put him entirely at odds with Dickson and the entire Newsroom story. There was no fudging here, rather outright denial.
The second answer, at first, could be accommodated within English's line that he forgot. But in their attempt to fudge, the politicians and their advisors had missed something. That second answer couldn't be reconciled with what English had told the party official... and police.
English gambled this morning that there would be no more to come, that no-one would get to see his statement to police. His 'I don't recall' line was unbelievable and, frankly, no-one believed it. Before long senior gallery members such as the Herald's Audrey Young had penned columns saying the PM's credibility was now at stake. Later in the day, Fairfax's Tracy Watkins called it "the dodgy memory card".
Who knows what happened in those intervening four hours and when or how it dawned on him that his 'I don't recall' line was untenable, or at least too risky to stand. Because four hours later English changed his story. And it's hard to underestimate how damaging this could be. He suddenly did recall. He had gone back to his office, dug out his statement to police - the one he refused to release that morning - and realised he had told police that Barclay had told him, he had recordings of his staff.
"I said to police that Todd Barclay had told me that he had recordings of his staff criticising him"
Suddenly, remarkably, English had exposed Barclay as a liar. Not just a one-off liar today but, to the best of English's knowledge, it now seemed as if all the denials Barclay had made in public over the past year had been "misleading".
When asked then if Barclay had lied, English said:
"You'd have to ask him".
That reply seemed to spell the end for Barclay. The first rule of scandal in government is circle the wagons and protect the Prime Minister. When the PM stops defending you, that usually means you're toast. And if you want things resolved quickly, you make sure you resolve things before the TV news at 6pm.
So when Todd Barclay called a stand-up for 5:50pm, it was assumed this was it. Barclay was going to resign. It seemed National's only choice. But then, he didn't. Barclay stood before the gallery journalists and said he was sorry for "misleading" them this morning. He was wrong to have answered as he did, it was a mistake, he still had lots to learn. Then he turned on his heel and left without taking questions.
Stunning. Just who made that decision for Barclay to dig in is a big question. Does he still have the confidence of his PM and party or has he gone rogue? Because the party could de-select him. Calause 110 (d) of its constitution says:
"Nominees are required to comply strictly with the rules for selection concerning provision of full and truthful information about themselves"
Yet Barclay's honesty is clearly now in doubt. And if any untruth has been offered the party may:
Withdraw approval and the Party’s endorsement of the nominee at any time before or after the final selection meeting;
So why is Barclay hanging in, potentially raining down more damage on his party and leader? Why is being alllowed to remain? Perhaps the calculation is that if he were to resign, English's credibility would be damaged even further; that it would be an admission of the PM's guilt as much as the Clutha-Southland MP's.
But here's the problem with that: English is damned by association either way. Whether Barclay stays or goes, we now know that Bill English knew that Barclay had recorded his staff. At the earlier stand-up today, Paddy Gower asked English if recording staff as Barclay had done was "acceptable". English said no, it would not be acceptable behaviour.
Yet a few hours later he admitted that he knew of that unacceptable behaviour and did nothing. Indeed, he has stood by his successor for over a year, knowing what he had done. As had the previous PM, John Key. And remember, Barclay hadn't secretly recorded just anyone, it was a woman who had worked closely with English for years.
But wait, it gets worse.
Because if Barclay wasn't in the room, that recording wasn't just 'unacceptable', it was illegal. So English has stood by an MP who has broken the law and done nothing. This is a politician whose greatest asset is his fundamental decency. English doesn't have the charisma, so he trades on judgment and decency. How will voters react to a PM who knows of potential illegal actions by one of his MPs, and hushes it up? Further, untraceable tax-payers funds from the PM's department are used as hush money.
For those close to politics this is truly shocking because it seems so at odds with the politician and person.
The real problem for the government tonight is that his decisions today - and indeed his decisions over the past year - undermine the very values he is about to take to the electorate in 95 days to seek an historic fourth term.
If English continues to have confidence in an MP who has been accused of bullying and betrayal by English's own former employee and a National Party loyalist, and who at worst may have broken the law, his own 'Honest Bill' brand will be corroded. If Barclay is forced out, the unaccpetable behaviour by both of them will have been confirmed.
It'll be interesting to see what his next decision will be.