Colin Craig has given up. Kind of. But by conceeding he can only win a seat with a deal, he's put the onus firmly on National and made John Key an offer the PM can hardly afford to refuse
Remember in the 2009 Mt Albert by-election when Melissa Lee said she was hoping to come second? She was roundly mocked and, presumably put straight by an advisor or senior colleague. Before the day was out she had rediscovered a never-say-die spirit, declaring "I am not in this game to lose". It's simple really. Conceeding before the votes are cast isn't the done thing.
Gower: So you’d be very happy to stand against a National candidate?
Craig: Absolutely. We are making our decisions based on where we are going to maximize party vote. We are not asking the question at all of where are National making a space. Because we’re not the National Party.
So which one of those could you beat? Which one of those three candidates could you beat? And tell the truth.
Well look, I don’t think I could beat any of them unless we run a fantastic local campaign and people get behind us. Last time I –
So just – you don’t think you could beat any of them? Any of those three: Paula Bennett, Mark Mitchell, or Murray McCully.
I think being very realistic, um, it’d be a big call to say that you’re going to beat a sitting National MP, and let’s count Paula Bennett as sitting because half the electorate is one she’s... Or a Labour MP.
Alright. So let’s just back up. You can’t win one of those electorates can you without John Key?
No. No. And that’s why I’m saying our campaign has always been to get the party vote. And we’ve been very clear about that.
It's a striking confession, to admit you're fighting for second place. Craig went on to say that he hasn't asked National for a deal, won't be asking for a deal and has no intention of talking to National. Full stop.
It's a statement that does two things.
First, it puts huge pressure on the Conservatives to reach five percent. But then Craig maintains that'll be a doddle, going on to say:
We’ve only got to get from 87.5-thousand people who wanted to vote for us last time to 120 [thousand]. It’s less than 40-thousand people. It’s not that big a deal. People are making it some great big hurdle. We’re going to get there. We know we’re going to get there.
Few people share his degree of confidence. While acknowledging it's possible, I'd say it's a hugely contested field competing for the conservative vote and with New Zealand First and National showing such strength in the polls, you've got to wonder where the extra three percent (going by Pundit's Poll of Polls) will come from.
Second, it puts pressure on National to deal. By acknowledging he can't beat 'em, he's sending National a clear signal he needs to join 'em. But he's putting it on them to be the one who initiates the deal, so they'll wear the "dirty dealer" badge, not him.
National won't like that, but Craig probably figures there's no need to woo Key and co because they've made it pretty clear they don't like the look of a deal with the Conservatives any which way. They'll only do it is they absolutely have to.
Remember, this comes at the end of the week where the third MP in Craig's electorate pick n' mix told him to stay away from his patch. Last year Paula Bennett warned Craig off the new Upper Harbour seat, where she said she'd be "running a strong campaign for National". Murray McCully stressed in March his "intention to stand again in East Coast Bays". And now Mark Mitchell has said Craig's "dreamin''" if he thinks Mitchell will stand aside in Rodney.
Why is National so relucant? Because Craig is to Key what Harawira is to Cunliffe -- a pain in the middle. Craig is a stick which with Labour can beat him and hurts Key's appeal to women and younger urban voters.
So at face value it looks like three strikes and you're out. Craig is making life hard for Key and Key is signalling to voters he'd only do a deal with Craig if he's desperate. Game over.
And going further, you might have noted that Craig this morning said that he'll choose where to stand based on where he can maximise his party vote. If so, you wouldn't rule out Upper Harbour, as most commentators have done. He'd get a lot of attention standing against Bennett and when the new seat was created in November the NZ Herald reported:
Before knowing of Ms Bennett's intentions, Mr Craig said this morning that the location of the new seat was "awfully good" for his party.
It is close to his home and a growing support base.
"We had really been hoping for a seat in the Upper Harbour or Glenfield area."
Mr Craig said the Upper Harbour area had a high proportion of elderly and immigrants, who tended to have values which aligned with his party.
Except that the line about standing where he'll maximise his party vote is dispensable, just as is his commitment to five percent and not wanting a deal from National. Indeed, all the signalling and posturing is, as Winston might say, bunkum.
Yes, he may get 40,000 voters more than in 2008 and climb over the five percent threshold. Yes, he may not ring John Key to ask for a deal (preferring to speak through the media). But he certainly won't gamble everything on five percent. And, let's be frank, National wouldn't want him to. He certainly will be hoping National offers him a deal and National knows it will almost certainly have to.
If he's on, say, four percent getting close to the election, neither he nor National wants to see those right-wing votes wasted. But even if the Conservatives are on 2.5 percent (and remember they got more votes on election day than polling suggested), National would be taking a big risk just letting those tens of thousands of votes disappear down the plughole. The arrival of Internet-Mana and the near-certainty that votes won't be wasted on the left make a deal on the right a near-certainty as well. (The Mana merger has been manna for Craig, you might say).
So Craig needs to stand somewhere a deal is possible, and Bennett doesn't offer that option. So it has to be Rodney (again, where you'd think he's likely to get the most party votes given his local government efforts and choice to stand there in 2011) or East Coast Bays (where McCully is the easiest National candidate to move to the list, perhaps in return for the promise of an ambassadorship - or whatever else he might want).
The only real out from all of that is New Zealand First. Winston Peters will never accept Colin Craig in the same government, given that Craig is trying to take his voters and become his heir in that part of the political kingdom. So Key would have to choose. But would he be confident that Peters would choose him back? And which would he prefer as a partner - Peters or Craig? Craig might harm his vote more but Peters would demand more in government.
Craig will announce his intentions next Sunday afternoon; until then Mitchell and McCully (and Key) are in the odd position of being at the mercy of a minor party. (Unless of course Key sends a quiet message to Craig as to which seat to choose). After that, it'll be up to John Key to choose. Does he risk it all by turning Craig away? Or does he keep the door open to a coalition?
Assuming that Key has no desire to come second and really isn't in this game to lose, he'll minimise the risk, wear the flak and choose the deal with Craig. And Craig will enter parliament as National's biggest junior partner.
Which leaves just one question -- how voters will react to that pre-election deal, plus the others with ACT and United Future, required to get National a third term. Because that could decide the ultimate winner and loser come September.