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Stacey Kirk: Maelstrom on the Left bodes consequences for the Right

He's still got selfie pulling power, but Prime Minister Bill English is up against some serious charisma found in Labour's new leader.

OPINION: Just like that, we have a competition. 

This time two weeks ago, Labour leader Andrew Little was about to admit he considered stepping down in the face of his party's worst poll results in 20 years, but actually, he wasn't going anywhere. 

Two days later, Jacinda Ardern would assume the top spot and her support would surge, while the Greens—preening that Metiria Turei's fraud bomb looked to have paid off—were unaware of a pending implosion. 

Winston Peters still confident of strong election result amidst "whole new ball game".

Only four days ago, Turei would stubbornly tell media for the last time there was no poll number that would see her step down—dogged by further revelations she had been highly selective with her story of living on the DPB. Hours later, she'd quit. (But not before costing the jobs of Little and two of her own MPs). 

READ MORE:
* After 33 years, one of Labour's most recognisable faces bows out
Winston Peters says he's not the kingmaker, but he can promise he'll be in Government
Meteria Turei's hubris contributed to her political downfall

These turbulent times make it tough for predictions, but one thing remains; it's still NZ First leader Winston Peters' choice as kingmaker. 

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And thanks to the extraordinary events of the past fortnight, his choice is looking far more legitimate. 

The balance of votes across the left-right divide remain largely unchanged—National held strong as the Opposition descended into a whirlpool of churning tide, threatening to blast apart a tired and groaning ship.

But though they may collectively look a shambles, they've managed to tack toward calmer water. National will be worried about that, though the Greens remain weak. 

Peters may tone down the game-playing that backfired so spectacularly with his famous "red phone blue phone" stunt of the 2005 election, but he will talk to both parties if given a chance. Should he choose Labour, he'll have some solid reasons to fall back on where it previously might have been considered a farce. 

As the polls stand, National will be the highest polling party on election day. Peters has adopted the stance in the past where he would speak to the highest polling party first. In the absence of any remotely helpful comment from him in recent weeks, it could be a logical starting point. 

But that's also where it may end. If Labour's in the mid-30s or higher, Peters will be given a realistic option. "Change" might well be the mood, and he will be wary of propping up a fading fourth-term National Government, as he eventually did with Labour in 2005.

It ended in failure then, and it's a fair concern for Peters. National cannot bank on taking a never-seen-before fifth term, particularly facing off against Ardern.

The surge in Labour support behind Ardern is unsurprising, but the poll to watch is the preferred Prime Minister stakes. Preferred PM rankings often reflect the power of incumbency—but not always. And it's where they don't that things get interesting.

Key overtook Helen Clark as preferred PM more than a year before the 2008 election that turfed her out of power. 

Almost overnight, Ardern leapt from about six per cent across most polls, to just over a percentage point behind the incumbent English, when she assumed the Labour leadership. 

National is unlikely to succumb to a rash reshuffle if their fortunes dip, however—English remains National's biggest asset. He may not have the sparkle that Ardern seems to naturally emanate through a camera, but he's reliable, and recent polls show, proven and well-trusted. 

While Ardern is looking likely to have her time, National will work hard to push the message that it shouldn't be 50-odd days after abruptly finding herself leader of the Opposition. 

Still, a shudder would have run up the spine of National's front bench when veteran MP Annette King gave her valedictory on Thursday night. Turning to Ardern, she said:

"I have a feeling you will lead the party for years to come, and you are going to be one of our most loved and effective leaders, and prime ministers."

The problem for National is the distinct feeling they weren't just kind words—they carried a weight that could be described by some as prophetic. 

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Sunday Star Times

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