Why National likes Winston's recent (but very modest) success

National is going after Winston Peters with all guns blazing. This must mean that they really are scared of him ... right?

The start of the last week of the campaign seems to have moved on from Teapot-not-quite-gate to "what about Winston?" ... and more particularly, "what happens if he is back in Parliament?" ... and even more particularly, "what happens if he is back in Parliament and holds the balance of power?"

So the NZ Herald has this story, in which John Key warns: "What Winston Peters is saying to New Zealanders is that on every Budget, on every issue, there could be a general election. How could New Zealand govern itself over the next three years, which is likely to be a volatile period in the world economy, when at any stage the whole Government can be brought down by Winston Peters?"

And somewhat unusually, David Farrar at Kiwiblog has this post up warning his readers about the exact same thing! That's some pretty spooky coincidence taking place right there.

What are we to make of this sudden interest in Winston's fortunes from the National Party and its fellow travelers? Well, the popular interpretation appears to be that it reveals National's concern that New Zealand First is approaching the 5% threshold required to return to Parliament, thereby giving rise to the only possible scenario in which Labour could displace National in Government. And even this possibility - still very remote, even with New Zealand First in Parliament - is enough to cause National to enter full attack mode.

So, Danyl at DimPost asks: "you gotta wonder why a party who is polling double their main opponents needs to run out this kind of clumsy race-baiting during the last week of the campaign. So I’m calling it: based on this statement, and the increasingly weird and hysterical posts on Kiwiblog, I predict that National’s internal polling has Winston Peters registering at >5%."

And "Eddie" over on the Standard excitedly proclaims: "National is getting increasingly hysterical as its internal polling shows its majority slipping away and New Zealand First above 5%. The ‘positive campaign’ that never really was is out the window. It’s all out attacks on NZF now."

Well ... maybe, I guess. But as Rob Salmond has pointed out here on Pundit, the polls actually appear to be tracking in a way that makes both a National majority and no New Zealand First MPs in Parliament look more and more likely. So unless internal party polling really is saying something markedly different to the publicly reported polls, I find it hard to believe that a single NZ Herald poll showing NZ First on 4.9% (while also still showing National remains above 50% support) would cause such panic on National's part.

(As an aside, the claim that "internal party polling must be showing ..." strikes me as the political equivalent of arguments for the existence of luminiferous aether - an unobservable cause that is divined purely by the need to have something that explains what can be seen to be happening.)

So, then, why go nuclear on Winston, if he isn't really a threat to National's election chances? I can think of a few reasons - ones that are designed to take advantage of Winston's (still modest) rise in the polls, rather than to destroy the only possible threat to National's fortunes.

First of all, attacking Winston as a recipe for instability and uncertainty is a very nice way to argue for the stability and certainty provided by a majority National Government without turning off voters by appearing arrogant and grasping (as, arguably, Helen Clark did back in 2002). So John Key doesn't have to say "make sure you vote for National, if you want a safe ship to carry you in troubled times". He just needs to point to the potentially stormy waters approaching and leave it to voters to clamber up themselves.

Second, attacking Winston is a good way of clobbering Labour without even mentioning them. As far as National is concerned, every news story that talks about anything but Labour is to the good. And as voters know that New Zealand First is Labour's only hope of governing, telling them about all the bad things that will happen if New Zealand First gets into Parliament reminds them of the messy deal that is the only alternative to National. So - Winston is Labour's cross to hang on, and hoisting him high makes their struggle all the more visible.

Finally, John Key has indicated his preference for moving from MMP to SM. And who is the poster boy for the evils of MMP (and thus the need to move to the certainty of a more disproportionate voting system)? Well ... we all know the answer to that question, don't we? So keeping Winston and the threat he poses to orderly government in the public's eye as the referendum approaches is not an undesirable state of affairs for those who would like to see a "No" vote at it.

Now, does this mean I think National actually would be happy (or, at least, unpreturbed) to see New Zealand First get back into Parliament? Not at all - I think National would far, far rather that New Zealand First got 3-4% of the party vote (which then would be wasted ... meaning National could govern alone on less than 50% of the party vote). But even if he does get back in, it looks more and more likely that National will be able to ignore him - along with all the other parties, if they so choose - so it would not be the end of the world.

So what I'm saying is that I think interpreting National's targeting of Winston as proof he must be on track to get back into Parliament, and that they see this as a real risk to their prospects on Saturday, is a mistake. Rather, Winston's (as yet modest) rise in the polls is a bit of a gift horse for them. And a good trader like John Key knows what to do with gift horses ... you flog them until they are dead.