Opinion by Political Editor Duncan Garner
John Key had the chance to rule out Winston Peters.
He had the chance to say Peters still couldn't be trusted, that NZ First remains an 'unacceptable' and 'unreliable' coalition partner under his leadership.
But he didn't. He stopped short of that.
At his post Cabinet press conference he said he'll make a decision in 2014. But not before.
The Prime Minister clearly knows he has a problem.
He needs coalition friends in 2014. And right now his options are so limited - they're hard to spot.
John Banks and ACT are stuffed and mounted with sub zero poll ratings and even lower credibility.
Peter Dunne holds his meetings in a phone booth. And my sources in National tell me Key and his close allies have little time for the Conservatives - Colin Craig's lot.
But Key can count. More than any other politician, this Prime Minister knows about numbers - 61, perhaps 62 seats will govern, depending on the over-hang.
And right now if he got 45 percent of the vote in 2014 - he would be short of a forming a Government.
He'd be five or so seats short of Government.
He might be the largest party at the next election - but he needs to get over the line. The governing line.
He could take Dunne and the Maori Party's three seats and still easily be short by a couple of seats.
In short, this Prime Minister needs new friends - and perhaps the new friend is the old enemy.
Bring in Winston Peters. It's why Key refuses to close the door on Peters this far out from the election.
But it raises the question - just how principled were his last two calls in 2008 and 2011? Let me you remind me what the Prime Minister said.
"I want to lead an aspirational Government, I don't believe a Winston Peters Government does that."
"I'm about tomorrow - not yesterday."
"If Peters holds the balance of power then it will be a Phil Goff led Government."
"It's not a matter of political convenience, it's a matter of political principle - we just do not find NZ First acceptable."
Seems pretty clear doesn't it?
So how can John Key come back from that?
With huge difficulty I would have thought.
You are either principled and never work with Peters - or you're not and want to get back into power at all costs.
Key is showing all the signs of the latter.
Understandably he wants a third term. But he may have to rely on the 'unreliable' and 'untrustworthy' bloke to get him there. The bloke who 'is about yesterday, not tomorrow.'
And what sort of Government would that be?
One that staggers to an early death - like other Governments Peters has been involved in?
One that is hamstrung by Peters fighting with the media? One that is held to ransom, budget by budget?
Key better sell the assets quickly, because Peters will stop that programme in its tracks as one of the prices of support.
He'll also want to be a Minister.
How does that fit with Key saying in 2008 that "Peters won't be a Minister in any National Government I lead"?
I know you might say it's all too early to write this - but I disagree.
Key and National are in trouble. They need friends if they want a third term. Now their sights are starting to turn to the old enemy - Peters.
But surely Key is too principled for that.
He has drawn a line in the sand already regarding Peters hasn't he?
Surely he won't trade his past principles in the pursuit of power?