National Party leader John Key told “an outright fib” to more than a million viewers during Tuesday night’s leaders’ debate, Prime Minister Helen Clark said.

Clark was referring to the controversy over National’s attitude to the Maori seats in Parliament.

National’s policy is to start a process to abolish them when all historic Treaty claims have been settled, which it hopes to achieve by 2014.

The Maori Party wants the seats entrenched in law and says they should not be abolished without Maori consent.

Co-leader Pita Sharples said last week National’s leader, John Key, gave him an assurance during a private meeting that the policy would be dropped after the election if the two parties needed to work together.

Key has denied giving that assurance, and during the leaders debate he said several times no agreement had been reached with the Maori Party.

Clark said Key told Sharples behind closed doors that the policy would be dropped.

“Then, when challenged with what he told Pita Sharples, he told an outright fib about it to 1.1 million people watching the television debate,” she said.

A senior Maori Party staffer has backed Sharples account of the meeting with Key, which was also attended by National’s deputy leader Bill English

English said he backed Key’s version of events.

During a minor parties forum on Auckland’s Alt TV last night Sharples stood by his claim.

And his chief of staff Harry Walker told The New Zealand Herald that Key was clear at the meeting that National’s position could be put on the backburner.

English said while the matter was discussed, his recollection matched Key’s — there was no agreement.

“John’s position has been consistent that he will not negotiate with anyone before the election,” he said.

The Maori Party has a policy of entrenching the seats and if the party holds the balance of power after the election National will have to cut a deal if it wants to form the next government.

Dr Sharples said on Alt TV that straight after Key had agreed with him over the seats issue English changed the subject.

“The way it all started was that I was explaining what would be our bottom line, that the seats cannot go unless Maori say so, and I kept saying that, and in the end he sort of agreed and agreed and agreed, so maybe in his own head he thought he hadn’t agreed, but he had.”

Deputy labour leader Michael Cullen called on Key to clear up the confusion.

He said Key was “slippery” and could not be trusted.