Shearer expected to have unanimous backing
Labour MPs are on their way to Wellington for this afternoon's urgent leadership vote which is expected to give David Shearer unanimous backing - for now.
Shearer summoned the MPs yesterday to force a vote, scheduled for 4pm, after speculation of a challenge by Labour's economic development spokesman David Cunliffe overshadowed last weekend's annual conference and housing policy announcement.
Cunliffe, who is currently on the front bench ranked at fifth place, is expected to be demoted to the unranked backbench below 20th on the party's list of 34 MPs.
Cunliffe yesterday welcomed the urgent vote, saying he would back Shearer.
Party restructuring at the weekend means the caucus must again vote to endorse or oppose the leader in February and Cunliffe has refused to rule out a challenge at that stage.
There has been speculation some of Cunliffe's supporters could also be demoted today with names suggested including shadow attorney-general Charles Chauvel, education spokeswoman Nanaia Mahuta, early childhood education spokeswoman Sue Moroney and energy spokeswoman Moana Mackey.
However, there is not expected to be a wider reshuffle today and Shearer is expected to detail only Cunliffe's fall when he holds a press conference after the leadership vote.
Auckland University political scientist Raymond Miller today warned punishment against Cunliffe should be "relatively mild".
"A disaffected politician can lob verbal hand grenades from the backbenches," he told TVNZ's Breakfast programme.
Shearer needed to do a wider reshuffle to strengthen the front bench and was likely to do that in "coming days", Miller predicted.
Cunliffe had shown poor timing by refusing to endorse his leader at the weekend's conference, he said.
"Political leadership all about timing; when to act and when to hold fire. An annual conference is about projecting an image of unity. It's not the time to be fuelling speculation about leadership."
Miller suggested today's vote could damage Cunliffe's leadership prospects, but other commentators have said it is unlikely to settle the matter.
Meanwhile, Labour Party president Moira Coatsworth has rejected suggestions she snubbed Shearer at the conference by not endorsing him before his keynote address on Sunday, instead leaving it to his wife Anushka Meyer.
Coatsworth said she had backed Shearer when she gave her speech on Saturday.
"The first thing I did was talk about values in the leadership and the integrity he has, and how fortunate we are that he has come back from serving in the most dangerous places in the world to serve our party," she told TV3's Firstline programme.
"We decided Anushka should introduce David weeks ago, they were both New Zealanders of the Year, they've worked together and it was good to have her, a strong articulate woman give a personal account of David."