The tea tapes contain a pivotal exchange where John Banks and John Key talk about “restructuring” ACT – including Banks confirming his orders from Key to make Catherine Judd the new leader. We also learn that National advisors called Key in a panic during the Brash coup calling on him to stage a snap election. It’s an insight into the cynicism of National and Key, and also Key’s poor political judgement.
Starting at 6.05 on the tape, Key and Banks spend quite a bit of time talking about their plans for “restructuring” ACT …. and how it’s important that their collusion isn’t made public. Banks practices his denial lines (ironically, it’s this very conversation that made it public):
I mean, longer-term, I reckon ACT’s got to, um… The reason I didn’t text you is it’s better if I don’t. Because it puts you under pressure to say ‘he has or he hasn’t’ done.
Banks: No No. ‘I haven’t heard from the Prime Minister. I don’t expect you to have any…’. What’s that number of yours? I’ve got two numbers for you”
Key: the proper one’s 594594
Banks: 594594. ‘I haven’t talked to you’. If they want to know, if I’ve talked to the Prime Minister. I think it’s important that, over the campaign, we stay at arm’s length. ‘He’s got his own party and I think the new Leader should be Catherine Judd‘ (Judd now uses the surname Isaac)
Key: Yeah yeah. She’s good.
Banks: Don Nicholson and Seymour – the four of us can restructure and rebuild this party.
Key: And she’s good actually. I reckon she’ll have quite a bit of female appeal. That’s where you want to go.
Where Key’s grand plan to install Isaac as leader stands after Brash and Banks failed to get her into Parliament, we don’t know. ACT currently has no leader.
Key’s mention of the snap election comes in response to Banks saying of Don Brash at 6.53 on the tape:
“he’s a strange fella, that other fella” [incidentally, the tape is riddled with this weak code talking, because they realised that, realistically, with the media pack metres away, their conversation wasn't private]
“Yeah. We’ve been down that road before. That’s why, when they rang me in the UK, I never ever thought it was going to be surging to 15% and we should have a snap election”
So, ‘they’ (which will be his senior advisors) called Key when he was in London for ANZAC Day last year, at the time of the Brash takeover of ACT. Despite it being clear that some factions within National were behind this coup, talk of ACT getting 15%, taken from National, spooked Key’s advisors into recommending a snap election.
He didn’t refuse because there was lack a real justification – no crisis of government – that would have necessitated a snap poll. Quite the opposite, he thought ACT wouldn’t seriously threaten National’s vote and, so, he didn’t need to go early. Both he and his advisors clearly felt no compunction about calling a snap election for purely political ends, however.
Interestingly (and I seriously doubt that this idea wasn’t planted by National advisors), Guyon Espiner wrote a piece at the time of the coup recommending that National hold a snap election. This reeks of National’s (highly effective) pre-framing tactics – give Guyon a hint and some lines, which he runs knowing that if and when it happens he will be able to claim amazing foresight, and thereby win the leader of the press gallery to your framing. So, I would say that the snap election was a pretty close thing.
Ironically, it would have been the right thing for National to do, for the opposite reasons to what they supposed.
ACT would still have polled abysmally in May and Labour would have polled higher but the Greens wouldn’t have done anywhere near as well, the Conservatives wouldn’t have bled 2.5% of National’s vote for no seats, and Peters probably wouldn’t have been back. National could very well have won an outright majority in a snap election in May but waiting cost them dearly (which is why Irish mocked their poor judgement for going for a November election back when Key announced it last February).