I fancied at times that John Key looked more pleased for himself than anything else on Saturday night, but there is no denying his mandate. Labour has been told to take a rest by the voters --- thousands of whom, in Auckland at least, just stayed home this year. The message has been underlined with a series of dispiriting electorate defeats.
Key can take much personal credit for the victory, if only because the campaign strategy focused so heavily on him. Not only were National's old guard kept out of the spotlight, we simply never saw the likes of Stephen Joyce, the new list MP and (we are told) anointed Cabinet minister.
If his victory speech was that of a man without a lyrical bone in his body, Key finished the campaign in much better shape than he began it. A critical bloc of voters decided they did trust John Key, personally.
It cannot go unremarked here that it's my generation that takes office now. Key and his deputy are both just a year older than I am, although it would be fair to say our life experiences do not greatly cross over.
Key's opponent, Helen Clark, hailed her people on Saturday night with an exuberant multi-lingual greeting, and departed with the authority and decisiveness you would expect of her. It was a strong performance from a Prime Minister who, as past Prime Ministers do, will soon enough enter the affections of even those who opposed her.
Matthew Hooton made a useful observation on Sunday last night: that Clark had changed the National Party as Margaret Thatcher reshaped the British Labour Party. I think this is the case not only in terms of policy, but people. Maungakiekie was won on Saturday by a Samoan-born New Zealander with a Cambridge MBA. Perhaps his face would not have fit in 1999.
But the most striking performance of the evening was surely the belligerent, threatening interview given by Roger Douglas to TV3. He growled "we've got some changes to make" as if he were a man with an influential mandate, rather than the revival candidate on the list of a party that won fewer votes than Winston Peters did.
We unexpectedly got a look at his soul, and I'm very sure John Key wishes we had not. Douglas was weird and he was angry; so much so that Hooton, on TV3, was driven to spend the rest of the night assuring the nation that the centrist, consensus-loving John Key would pay him no heed.
Earlier, Peter Dunne had barely begun to drone on (or should that be "barely begun to get his drone on"?) before TV3 cut away from his speech to follow Winston Peters to the rostrum in Tauranga. Peters had clearly taken a drink or two, but he has the charisma or an old prizefighter.
I'm not sorry to see him depart but I am mindful that more people voted for Peters' party than gave Sir Roger Douglas his barking mandate. If New Zealand First now comes undone, there is a distinct community of interest looking for a home.
The settings were sometimes evocative: Peter Dunne seemed to be on his own, Winston's was an old folk's home, Tariana was with her whanau, and Labour's do was full of women drying each others' tears. Only the dancing Sikhs saved National's gathering at Sky City from looking more like a drunken eastern suburbs theme party than it did. (The hooting Parnell types outside Key's gate as he left for Sky City briefly made me think of a zombie flick. I imagined bands of them roaming St Stephen's Ave, clutching bottles of pinot gris.)
The centre-left is hardly bereft. This is hardly of the order of the 21% drubbing National sustained in 2002. It would not require too many votes to swing back (or return to the polls) in 2011 for another shot at government. The Greens have two more MPs, and Labour's new talent includes people already committed to refreshing the party's ideas via its Policy Council. They clearly have somewhere to go, and seem to be swiftly setting the course. Whether they should have started heading there sooner is now a moot point.
Hooton's argument is that the need to remain electable in 2011 will stay Key's hand on policy -- indeed must do so. And I hope he's right, because Act's new caucus looks like a horrorshow; rounded out as it is by Sensible Sentencing Trust hardliner David Garrett. Act and National will undoubtedly agree on a clutch of populist law and order policies that we'll pay for in various ways down the line.
But it's not correct to say that National does not need the Maori Party's support to govern. Governing is more than confidence and supply, and National will need a partner for a majority on legislation that Act doesn't like, and a broader base for when the novelty drains away.
The Sunday programme yesterday drew a line under that idea. Pita Sharples respectfully declared himself willing to talk with National, emphasising that any accord would need to be good for both parties ("mana enhancement" he called it).
Rodney Hide's performance on the same programme verged on the disgraceful. It was the first time the two leaders had sat together since the election. Yet twice, he taunted Key about being "to the left of Helen Clark", and declared that National's "spending promises have been way over the top", airily presumed that National would "be persuaded" to support Act's three-strikes policy and put forward the ditching of the emissions trading scheme as a fait accompli.
And then came this:
"John's gotta keep faith with his voters and so too does Act -- people voted for Act and we got a very clear message … Act is actually where National's philosophy is and where their vote support is -- and John Key has to be careful because he knows that half his core support actually agrees with Act."
Has to be careful? It sounded like a threat, and I think it was meant to. Jovial Rodney has been put away: switched with a man with the manners and countenance of a Ferengi trader. It was an extraordinarily arrogant and presumptuous display, and the man who won 12 times more votes just sat there opposite and looked uncomfortable with it.
John Key claims he will run a government for "all New Zealanders". He should start by putting the Act Party very firmly in its place.
PS: I was delighted with the way the election-night Media7 turned out -- I think it's the best show we've done. Simon Pound's story on Hone Harawira was fascinating, our panel (Linda Clark especially) was sharp and the spin doctors' lunch in Wellington was revelatory. You can watch it here on TVNZ ondemand.