What Winston Wants – the campaign edition

New Zealand First is well placed to return to parliament next term and tomorrow night could end up holding the balance of power. So what might happen next?

What's going on in Winston Peters' head? That will be a question vexing several party leaders, thousands of voters and even some in his own party. Because whatever else the polls may or may not be telling us, the safest bet would be on New Zealand First making the five percent threshold and being needed to at least support the next government.

There are so many ifs, buts and maybes around this election, with so many parties involved. If the Conservatives get in, then Peters' power is radically diminished and Key will have choices. If National's support holds up, he may be able to return the same government. But if not, almost all the paths to power for both major parties go through Peters, as I wrote a lot about earlier in the year.

So what would Peters' priorities be? The received wisdom is that he's a Nat at heart and will always veer that way. Add in the fact that National is far and away the largest party and the potential for a political backlash if he tips them out of power, and many assume that he will keep John Key in power.

There are numerous ways he could do that – he could join a formal coalition, sit on the cross-benches in various styles and support the government one bill at a time, for example, or even by abstaining he would allow a minority government led by National to form.

With National he would be the second biggest party and wouldn't have to deal with the Greens. While many argue his attitude towards the Greens has softened since 2005, others say he still doesn't get them, doesn't get green economics and is old-fashioned in his distrust of their worldview.

Then of course there's Key himself, the political pragmatist and ex-trader who knows how to get the deal done; he and Peters can talk turkey and in the process may earn a grudging respect for each other.

But there's a counter argument to that scenario, and it's stronger than many people realise. First, Key's government is not the sort of National government Peters respects. Key, Joyce and the are not the old fashioned sort of Tories like Bolger and his crew back in the 1990s. Peters has repeatedly and sometimes vicisouly questioned their integrity. In just the past few days he has called Key a "phoney". There's no trust there from which to begin negotiations.

Second, National has not treated New Zealand First MPs well in and around the House. While Peters will be the ultimate decider, his MPs have forged much better relationships with their Labour and Green counterparts than with National MPs and with those relationships have come mutual admiration. There's a sense they could work together.

What's more, Labour will be in the weakest position to negotiate. Key will push back harder and Cunliffe would dare and will be desperate and dependent on Peters.

Then there's history. Peters has a habit of going into third term governments, but each time it has ended badly and he had not completed a single term as a minister. In 2008 it went so badly that New Zealand First was kicked out of parliament and only extreme hard work from members, Peters' own political skills, the tea-pot tapes and a few lucky polls got him across the line again. Whether Peter is a student of his own history is a moot point, but those around him will be wary of again propping up a third term government.

Plus, don't forget Dirty Politics. Peters at times seems to have found this particularly distasteful. A master of politics' black arts himself, he seems to think National has crossed a line. Is it a bridge too far for Peters?

Also, it's interesting to note that praise Peters has lavished on David Parker recently.

And of course there's policy and that's harder to read. Undoubtedly with Labour and the Greens he will get more of the policy change his party stands for. Reserve Bank reform, foreign land sales banned or restricted, immigration cut, the government building more houses, some movement towards buying back state assets and maybe even a public option in KiwiSaver.

National will struggle to offer him as much. But the political risk to Peters in achieving more with the Labour/Greens is that New Zealand First doesn't get the credit. He could get pushed out of the headlines. Having said that, Peters being Peters you'd back him to ensure he gets credit one way or the other.

He may calculate that going with National he will get less policy, but more credit.

But here's the thing. All of those arguments are likely to be secondary. You've seen the odd sight this week of Peters talking up Labour. Why? To give him leverage; to give him choice. The ideal situation for Peters is that New Zealand First genuinely holds the balance of power and can go either way. Then the bidding war will commence and he can maximise his gains.

Whoever Peters heads into negotiations with, you can bet he will play hard ball. He will go for broke. He may well raise the Prime Ministership with Labour. He will certainly raise the Deputy Prime Minister job and others besides. Peters will want as many baubles of office as he can get and he will want them now.

Because what previous negotiations tell us about Peters is that he's very much inclined to go with the highest bidder. Key the trader? Or Cunliffe the desperate? Who will give him the better deal? That's what the next government could hinge on.