David Cunliffe will be stripped of his portfolios and banished to the back benches for disloyalty today after a leadership vote in which Labour leader David Shearer is set to win unanimous backing.
As expected, yesterday Mr Shearer summoned his MPs to Wellington for an urgent vote today in an attempt to force Mr Cunliffe to "put up or shut up".
On Sunday, Mr Cunliffe had said he welcomed an early vote to settle the matter, but yesterday he said he saw no need for the early vote and would back the current leader.
However, he again refused to rule out a tilt in February, when under party rules the caucus must vote to endorse or oppose the leader.
Mr Shearer said that statement by Mr Cunliffe changed nothing and he would go ahead with today's leadership vote.
"I'm holding this vote to demonstrate I have the support of my caucus and to put recent speculation to bed," he said.
Party sources said once he received the expected unanimous backing from MPs he would dump Mr Cunliffe from the top 20 and send him to the "unranked" back benches.
Some in the caucus are calling for his close supporters to also be demoted, which could mean bad news for shadow attorney-general Charles Chauvel and energy spokeswoman Moana Mackey.
Mr Chauvel said no-one had discussed the matter with him, and he would endorse Mr Shearer today.
Earlier, senior Whip Chris Hipkins launched a stinging attack on Mr Cunliffe, saying he had undermined the current and previous leaders.
"That's unacceptable. If David Cunliffe wants to challenge for the leadership, he should come out of the shadows and get on with it . . . it is totally unacceptable to say: ‘I'll support David Shearer for now while I work over the summer break to destabilise the leadership and get the numbers to move against him in February'."
MP Sue Moroney, seen as in the Cunliffe camp, said she would back Mr Shearer.
But no-one would say what they would do in February's vote.
"I don't think there has been any challenge issued, actually."
Before Mr Shearer had sought her backing, no-one had asked for her support for a leadership bid.
She had seen no evidence of disloyalty by Mr Cunliffe.
"I'm quite surprised at the level of the attack on David Cunliffe . . . in the last 24 hours," she said. "It seems as if some senior MPs in our caucus are struggling with the level of decision-making the party is now expecting . . . I can't see any other reason why there has been this talk of a leadership challenge."
Party president Moira Coatsworth said delegates to the annual conference had told her they "appreciated robust debate and it was one of the best conferences they had been to in a very long time", in contrast to the impression of chaos the media gave.
She said Mr Hipkins' comments were a matter for Mr Shearer to resolve. She backed Mr Shearer as the leader but would not discuss his decision to call a vote - or Mr Cunliffe's actions.
"The MPs are responsible to David Shearer and you need to speak to him about the parliamentary vibe."
Mr Shearer said he would seek the backing of more than 60 per cent of the caucus today, rather than the simple majority strictly required by the rules. The formal endorsement vote in February, when rules would require him to win more than 60 per cent support to avoid a run-off, would also go ahead.
Ms Coatsworth said the party would provide Mr Shearer with the rules for a leadership vote, but the level of endorsement he wanted was for him to comment on.
- The Dominion Post
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