I saw the PM's old Press Secretary walking down Lambton Quay today, and it reminded me of an angry phone call I got from him last year, informing me that Labour had no plans to release any dirt files, that Labour does not keep dirt files, and that any reports to the contrary are untrue and malicious. With what we know now, it would perhaps indicate that they store their dirt in very large boxes instead.
In this week's Listener, Jane Clifton called the (then-)prevailing understanding between Labour and National a system of "nuclear dirt-terrent". A charming and most useful analogy for explaining the steadfast stockpiling of dirt, but it also provides a good framework for understand how it came to fail.
Deterrence is based on rational agents who make rational decisions. Frankly, not only do there appear to be a few rogue agents in the Labour caucus who are willing to exceed their authority, but the Labour Government as a whole has been looking increasingly unreasonable and out of control over the course of the year.
Deterrence relies on everyone not wanting escalation. But in National's case, is escalation a bad thing: a) for the National? b) for Don Brash? c) for leaders-in-waiting?
3) Variable X
The best laid plans of mice, men and politicians often go awry. Though, in this case, perhaps someone should have seen it coming: Woman scorned; hell hath no fury, etc.
I don't want to make excuses for Labour. They made innuendos that allude to things that they wouldn't want to say outright... because it would make them look like complete goddamn sleazeballs. They're out of control, and they really need to stop. For fuck's sake, just stop.
Their intention wasn't to unleash the dirt, it was to rattle National's nerves. But how did this game of brinkmanship go so wrong? Of course the concept of brinkmanship implies risk, but there are other factors at work.
For example, it's an unspoken rule that media does not report on the private affairs of politicians, unless it somehow becomes public. Even bloggers, including myself, observe that. Rumours about everyone fly around all the time, but they stay rumours unless someone goes out of their way to make it public (e.g. Does it on the Parliament steps).
Labour did not take this crucial step. Someone from National did. First by raising it in caucus, then by leaking it to the press. Both steps were necessary to get it into print.
This wasn't about getting a chance to talk about it, or ascertaining whether it was true. The rumours have been doing the rounds in Parliament for well over a year. If this unnamed backbencher hadn't heard about it until this week, he/she really ought to try tipping the waitresses at Bellamy's.
This was a convenient opportunity to do Brash in. The polls haven't been buckling. Brash hasn't done anything unusually daft lately. This provided an opportunity to put personal pressure on Brash, tarnish him politically without any damage to the party, place the blame squarely on Labour (who deserve much of it anyway), and it allows the leader to start out clean. Pushing your leader onto the sword of your mortal enemy - it's the perfect coup.
And despite the political implications, let's not forget that this is still a domestic matter, with domestic causes and domestic consequences. It was arguably sparked off by Labour's sleazy innuendos, but it's wrong to say that the chain of events began there.