Comment: Bill English’s worst day as PM

Bill English's decision to turn a blind eye in early 2016 to Todd Barclay's revelation to him about illicitly recording staff member conversations has come back to haunt the Prime Minister with a vengeance, Bernard Hickey writes

If only he had acted to stop Barclay's re-selection as the MP for English's Clutha-Southland electorate and forced him to front up to the police back then, the damage today would not have been nearly as bad. And make no mistake, there has been a hit to English's reputation as a straight-down-the-line politician who doesn't prevaricate or fudge or suffer the same 'brain fades' as his predecessor.

For four hours, English appeared to be a hostage to a lowly MP who was denying in public something that the Prime Minister knew to be true, and knew would damage the National Party if it came out.

English prevaricated his way through 15 minutes of questions from reporters on the way into National's caucus meeting in the hope the story might go away, saying seven times that he could not recall if Barclay had told him about the recording. He even said he had confidence in the first-term MP, despite Barclay revealing evidence of an illegal act against an electorate agent that English had known and respected for 17 years.

Just metres away at the same time, Barclay was denying to reporters that he had made a recording or had spoken to the Prime Minister about it. That started the clock ticking.

Even during the questioning before the caucus meeting, English could sense he was in trouble when Newsroom's Sam Sachdeva asked him if he had made a statement to the police about it. English confirmed the statement, but then could not recall what he had told police in the statement. He then said he would not release the statement and then failed to answer questions about how he could have made a statement to police about a conversation, but now could not recall it.

It looked like he had been caught unprepared to defend something he wasn't comfortable defending.

Once English knew that Newsroom knew about the police statement, he could not be sure it would not come out to make fools of both Barclay and English. So some time between 10am and 2pm he decided to cut at least some of his losses and throw Barclay under the bus.

English did the proverbial just before Parliamentary Question Time by revealing Barclay had indeed told the then-Deputy Prime Minister he had recorded office conversations involving electorate agent Glenys Dickson in late 2015. Suddenly, it seemed, the Prime Minister's memory had been jogged. His staff then handed out copies of English's statement to police made on April 27, 2016.

English said in the statement Barclay had told him about recording conversations of Dickson criticising the young MP. He told the police it was a face-to-face conversation. How could anyone forget that? And why would anyone agree to pay taxpayer's money to effectively keep it quiet.

But only some of English's losses have been cut.

The Prime Minister now faces some tough questions about why he took no action in early 2016 when he learned about the recorded conversations and why he accepted Barclay's decision not to take questions from police. After all, English had agreed to take questions from police. Why would the MP at the centre of the allegations refuse to talk if he had nothing to hide?

It seems extraordinary that English was prepared to accept the re-selection of Barclay as the MP of an electorate that is not only close to his heart - it's his family home.

Particularly now that it's clear that many party members were so unhappy with the selection process that they have filed a complaint. They allege a rushed process, improper votes and “delegate stacking” with Barclay's family members and supporters. See the full report by Sam Sachdeva and Melanie Reid here.

English must have known this was a grenade waiting to go off, but still he allowed Barclay to continue on.

Ultimately, the damage comes back to questions about the character of Todd Barclay, and why English was prepared to accept Barclay as a representative of his Government in his home electorate. He might argue (but didn't) that it was the office of his predecessor John Key who oversaw the payout to Dickson and hoped the issue would not be publicised. That doesn't fly for someone with the authority and respect within the party that English has, and his close working relationship with Key. Why wouldn't he use that standing with Key to do the right thing at the time?

One measure of character is what someone in a position of authority does when they think no one is looking and they think no one will know if they do something wrong. During those quiet moments, they have to make the right decision. Do they think they can get away with doing the wrong thing? Or do they do the right thing without being prompted?

Todd Barclay appears to have failed that test repeatedly. Bill English's moral authority to lead his party and the Government was challenged in Parliament just minutes after he revealed that now-famous conversation with Barclay. I have never seen English look so subdued and grave in Parliament through an hour of questions. His backbench looked equally shaken. Todd Barclay sat with his head bowed at the other end of the chamber, glancing up only occasionally.

This was Bill English's worst day as Prime Minister and the damage is far from contained. Somehow, he will have to engineer the resignation of Barclay in double quick time. He has already failed that test. Barclay's bizarre statement late today acknowledging he misled the media and then not taking questions only worsened the situation and extended the pain for another news cycle.

And there will be wider questions for the National Party about whether attempts to silence Dickson represent any sort of obstruction of justice.

There will be more revelations and blowback to come. The Prime Minister will look back on those moments in early 2016 as quiet moments of poor judgment when he should have stood up to both Todd Barclay and John Key over both the pre-selection and the use of the leader's fund to try to keep the whole affair secret.

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