John Armstrong: Will 25 years of Winston Peters' mischief, mishaps and mayhem as NZ First leader have a swansong beyond 2020?

So much for Winston Peters' first 25 years in the job.

The big question now is what mixture of mischief, mishaps and mayhem will be unleashed by him during his next quarter century as New Zealand First's leader.

Only joking. Well, not entirely.

The notion that the 73-year-old might serve for another 25 years as leader is well and truly in the realm of the utterly ridiculous. But don't let him hear you saying that.

As much as Wednesday's anniversary of the official launch of Peters' party back in 1993 focused on something in the past, it was entirely predictable that it would draw attention to questions regarding the long-term prognosis for New Zealand First.

The questions were ones which Peters was at pains to deflect, namely when will he step down as leader, when will he quit politics altogether and —most crucially of all — how long would New Zealand First survive as a going concern without him at its helm.

The party's marking of its birthday was accordingly somewhat subdued — less celebration and more like commemoration.

In the interviews he gave this week, Peters played a dead bat to questions about his eventual stepping down as leader and ultimately his exit from Parliament and the National political stage.

Those asking the questions had been around the political traps long enough not to waste precious interview time in the vain hope of getting meaningful answers.

When the no small matter of his political longevity was broached, it was clear he had determined that he would be dragged into a slanging match.

The last thing Peters would have wanted to happen is for the anniversary to to turn into an informal referendum on how much longer he should remain New Zealand First's one and only leader.

The tactic worked. Such a debate has not occurred.

There was further reason why Peters broke his habit of a lifetime and instead made a special effort to avoid saying or doing anything which might have provoked unwanted argument.

Peters' handling of last year's coalition negotiations impressed no-one and angered many.

There was great indignation that a minor party which captured a paltry 7.2 per cent of the vote compared to the 44.4 per cent and 36.9 per cent registered by National and Labour respectively was dictating the course and detail of the coalition talks.

Peters' reward for using the system to his party's gain —as he was perfectly entitled to do — was to be put on notice by those who saw it as somehow unfair and undemocratic that he had once again ended becoming the kingmaker despite his party coming perilously close to falling below the 5 per cent threshold.

Peters' soon-to-end stint as Acting Prime Minister has served as an opportunity to seek redemption. He has not wasted it.

Boasting about New Zealand First's policy gains both current and past would have jarred with the business-as-usual mood he has sought to create during the weeks that he has been the face of the Government.

He has also left the clear impression that he will be the one calling the shots in his party for as long as he deems he is fit in mind and body to do so.

The blunt question which demands an unequivocal reply both from Peters, his parliamentary colleagues and New Zealand First's wider membership is what age should be the retirement age for a politician, assuming there should be one at all.

In that vein, Peters might observe that his famous namesake, Winston Churchill, was prime minister until he was 81 and did not leave Parliament before making it to his 90th birthday.

Peters will only be able to resist relinquishing the monopoly rights on decision-making that he has enjoyed by virtue of his being both the founder of New Zealand First and sole reason for the party's existence for as long as he has continuing pulling power when it comes to winning over voters.

That power will inevitably wane as he ages and his core support among the elderly literally dies off while, at the same time, he becomes irrelevant to more and more voters who will regard the battles he has fought as ancient history.

If Peters is serious about New Zealand First having a future, it is incumbent upon him to transform the party into a modern institution which is seen to be democratic rather than just claiming to be so.

The days when Peters could afford to run the party as a political fiefdom are numbered.

The longer the party remains a personality cult, the greater the likelihood of its members simply walking away.

Peters does not need to be told all this. He understands the unwritten tiles of politics better than anyone.

But that does not mean he will necessarily follow them.

He will have no truck with speculation about him not continuing as leader. To do so would only undermine and diminish his authority.

Even the mere flagging of the possibility that he might be prepared to contemplate not standing for Parliament again would leave him weakened.

It is quite likely anyway that he has yet to determine when he should quit politics.

He is on-record as not ruling out a life post-politics. But that was said from the unfulfilling vantage point of Opposition.

He has since found himself in a position of power and influence, the levels of which are higher than he has ever enjoyed during previous stints on the government benches in Parliament.

He appears to be in rude good health. His energy seems boundless. There is no obvious reason why he should not have one more chance to lead his New Zealand First troops into the battle of an election.

Ironically, if the opinion polls are looking terrible for New Zealand First, a rekindling of the Peters' magic might be the only means of saving the party from oblivion.

Ultimately, trying to anticipate what he will do is a guessing game — and thus a mug's game.

The only thing that can be guaranteed is that he will keep the country guessing for as long as he can get away with doing so.

New Zealand’s third-largest political party is celebrating its 25th birthday. Source: 1 NEWS