Newsroom Pro's 8 things at 8 am: PM's worst day; Barclay admits 'misleading', but stays for now

It was a bad day for Bill English's credibility. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

In today's email we look at the fall-out from the Newsroom investigation of Todd Barclay.

1. PM's worst day

What a day of drama in Parliament yesterday after Newsroom's investigation of National MP Todd Barclay was published.

The key moments were just before 10 am when both Prime Minister Bill English and Barclay were questioned just metres apart about the investigation's revelation that Barclay had told English about secret recordings of Barclay's staff in early 2016.

English said seven times to the journalists gathered around him outside National's caucus room that he could not recall who had told him about the recording.

Just down the hallway Barclay emphatically denied to journalists that he had either spoken to English about the recordings or made the recordings.

Both were skewered when Newsroom's Sam Sachdeva asked English if he had made a statement to police about the conversation with Barclay. English agreed he had made the statement, but then continued to say he could not recall what he had said. It was the most damaging moment of his term as Prime Minister. He appeared unprepared and unable to tell the whole story.

He even expressed confidence in Barclay as an MP.

English's credibility was challenged repeatedly over the next four hours and beyond, including from the New Zealand Herald's Audrey Young and Fairfax's Tracy Watkins.

2. The reversal

Shortly before 2 pm English walked up to the waiting press gallery on his way to question time - and effectively threw Barclay under the bus and reversed his previous statements about not recalling what he had been told.

His press secretary then handed around copies of English's police statement, which showed English had told police in Dipton that Barclay had told him about secret recordings of Barclay's staff in the Gore office. Barclay told English about the recordings face-to-face last year, the statement showed.

There were plenty of sharp intakes of breath and jaw drops. English was then hustled through into Parliament by his press advisor and would not answer further questions about Barclay's future or the statement. All he would say about Barclay's false statements was that was a matter for Barclay. English will face more questions before question time again today.

English's reversal appeared to seal Barclay's fate and confirmed the damage done to English's own leadership from the morning's seven 'can't recalls'.

3. A bizarre statement

Barclay's resignation, or at least a decision not to stand again, was then widely expected, particularly when it was announced he would talk to journalists in Parliament shortly before 6 pm.

Flanked by senior whip Jami-Lee Ross and fellow Southland MP Sarah Dowie, Barclay read a prepared statement in which he accepted English's statement that he had told him about the recordings. This was a complete reversal of his denials just eight hours earlier.

He said he was sorry for misleading the media and said he shouldn't have been so specific in his comments. Barclay then said he would not comment further for legal reasons and left without taking questions.

He also left behind him a stunned media pack, who shouted questions at him as he left about why he had lied to the public and to his electorate.

See a full wrap up of the day's events here on Newsroom from Sam Sachdeva and Shane Cowlishaw.

4. It's not over

The Barclay affair is far from over, especially now that he has chosen not to resign immediately.

Newsroom reported yesterday afternoon about 50 members of National’s Clutha-Southland branch had written to police, asking them to re-investigate Barclay.

Police closed the investigation late last year, citing a lack of evidence. Barclay refused to talk to police.

There are also questions about why the police closed the case and why English's statement and text message confirming the meeting with Barclay was not released in an initial OIA release earlier this year.

The investigation's revelations of phone calls and pressure from National Party officials on Glenys Dickson to drop her police complaint have also raised questions about potential obstruction of justice.

5. It's not over internally either

There is also plenty of strife internally for the National Party over Barclay's re-selection in December last year.

The Party confirmed last night it was investigating allegations of a rushed process, improper votes and “delegate stacking” with his family members and supporters.

Party president Peter Goodfellow confirmed the complaint to Newsroom and that an investigation was underway.

“While the board has confidence in the way our selections are run, including this one, any member of the party is entitled to make a complaint and the board therefore initiated a process to investigate the matters raised," Goodfellow said.

“This involved asking our rules committee to look into the matters raised by the complainants which they have done," he said, adding a report was on its way and would be reviewed as soon as was practical.

See more detail about the internal investigation in this piece on Newsroom from Sam Sachdeva and Melanie Read.

6. Another false Barclay statement

The pain is about to get worse for Barclay today with Newsroom's piece this morning documenting another false statement to the media about Glenys Dickson.

Earlier this year the NZ Herald published a story based on the redacted version of the police investigation file into whether Barclay had breached a section of the Crimes Act around “use of interception devices”.

In a statement provided to the media organisation, Barclay said there had been complaints about the staff member (Dickson), who had been reprimanded.

“I had received complaints about the conduct of a staff member from members of the public and I referred the matter to Parliamentary Services," Barclay said.

“As the legal employer of support staff, they acted as they deemed appropriate and embarked on a disciplinary process,” he said then.

But in a letter from the Parliamentary Service to Dickson, seen by Newsroom, general manager David Stevenson said no complaints existed.

“…Parliamentary Service has neither received any complaint about you nor has it carried out any employment investigation or taken any disciplinary action against you (Dickson).”

Dickson told Newsroom that Barclay’s comments were misleading, defamatory, and “totally dishonest”.

See the full story from Shane Cowlishaw on Newsroom.

7. What it all means

In summary, yesterday's events have damaged the Government and the Prime Minister in particular, at least around Parliament and the media.

Whether that translates out into the wider voting public is another issue.

Whatever the case, English's decision to turn a blind eye in early 2016 to Todd Barclay's revelation has come back to haunt him. Yesterday was his worst day as Prime Minister, in my view.

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.

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.

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.

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.

See my full comment piece on Newsroom.

8. One or two fun things

Yesterday was also a big day for all the dark humorists on Twitter.

Here's a selection:

Jakobjakemo before Barclay, a former tobacco lobbyist, decided not to resign: "Tomorrow's headline: PM fires smoking gun."

Finlay Macdonald after Barclay didn't resign: "Breaks law, lies, refuses to talk to cops, pays hush money, humiliates boss ... who does a guy have to screw around here to get sacked?"

GCSB Intercepts: "I wonder what I'll remember today."