Tough as it may be to blame the PM for what looks like an extravagent car upgrade, it's the sort of mud that sticks and recalls another car-related mess and another PM's pleas of ignorance
This National government is often criticised for its political management, be it the lack of a strategic plan, how beholden it is to polls or its over-use of urgency. In recent days it has been damned for nearly setting an inconvenient precedent allowing foreign leaders to speak on the floor of the House whilst it's sitting and for rushing through the Marine and Coastal Area Bill. But it has actually been careful not to antagonise ordinary punters or give them something to moan about over the BBQ, which in terms of their winning a second term is the most important political management of all.
That's why the purchase of 34 brand spanking new BMW limos matters. Internal Affairs has bought the top of the line models to replace the reportedly three year-old cars currently being used to ferry around ministers and VIPs.
Did the PM or cabinet make the decision? No. John Key says he didn't even know about the purchase. Is it a bad deal? That's debatable, especially as precisely how much the new cars cost and how much the older ones are being sold for has been deemed "commercially sensitive". We don't really want a PM who spend his or her time micro-managing to the point of overseeing the purchase of crown cars, do we? Sir Robert Muldoon may be an inspiration to Key, but really...
The problem is that it's utterly at odds with the government's core message this election year - that the country is up to it's eyeballs in debt and needs some tough belt-tightening to recover. It plays into a potential political weakness of Key's that he has so far adroitly avoided - that he's an out of touch 'rich prick'. And ultimately, although Internal Affairs minister Nathan Guy will be looking intently at his shoes for the next week or so, the buck stops with the PM.
It's not fair, but it's the price of life in government. And it will annoy the heck out of many, many people.
And two years in, the tactic of blaming the previous government is running out of steam. While National's first response was to insist it was only honouring a deal signed off by Labour, TVNZ has confimed that Internal Affairs had the option to pull out of this fleet renewal and retain the status quo.
While not identical of course, it has similarities to Helen Clark's motorcade being caught speeding on the Canterbury plains in 2004.
Just like John Key, Clark claimed to know nothing of the offence (ie she was reading and didn't know the car was speeding), yet the criticism was that she should have known and was ultimately responsible. Whatever the claims, the mud stuck to the government.
Sure, it was in Labour's second term, so the lustre was already coming off. Key is still enjoying the glow of his first term, so the damage is unlikely to be as bad. And the story won't drag on, with a court case to come.
But these are the kinds of things that chip away at governments; at their credibility. Clark's speeding and her refusal to take responsibility played into the perception that she was her ruthless or detached. This plays into the perception that National governments are run for the wealthy and by the wealthy, with a born-to-rule attitude.
It's not nearly as important as, say, the plans around welfare reform, or even the government's continued stubborn refusal to fund the Superannuation Fund. It's small beer, but big politics; a rare dink in National's armour, leaving the impression that there's one rule for the people, and another for the leaders.
John Key, I imagine, will be sending out the message to his ministers very clearly and precisely - check with your officials, in your files and under your departmental beds, and make sure we don't get another 'eat them let cake' moment like this; certainly not at a time when political capital is being spent on its plan to partiall privatise the government's power companies.
Because one piece of sloppy hypocrisy can fade into memory, but two starts to look like a pattern.