The anatomy of a coup

04:38, Jul 12 2013

If you are ever of a mind to stage a coup against your party leader - or your boss, or even your mother - there are two golden rules you must follow. 

1: Deny you're planning a coup

2: See rule one

The reason for this is "bleedingly obvious", as former Labour leader Helen Clark used to say. Since coups are usually plotted in private, and since you really need to make sure you've done your numbers before you pick up the knife, you can't admit to it beforehand.

The ultimate bloodless coup is swift and deadly. The leader doesn't see it coming until it's too late to do anything but clear out the desk and start penning the memoir.

The only recent example I can think of where this plan wasn't followed was the guileless Don Brash, who staggered everyone by freely admitting he wanted to roll former National leader Bill English, who promptly called a leadership vote he expected to win - and lost.


English expected to win because his colleagues had assured him to his face that they'd vote for him. And then voted the other way in the ballot. In other words, they lied like flatfish. Amazing, huh. Politicians lying. Who'd have thought?

I mention all of this as a prelude to commenting on Radio Live presenter Duncan Garner's announcement on Twitter this week that a coup against David Shearer was under way and that a letter of no confidence in his leadership was being circulated among the caucus.

I've been staggered not by the comments themselves - I'd be amazed if Labour's MPs weren't planning a coup against Shearer - but by the reaction the story generated. Following swift denials by all involved, Garner was somehow expected to apologise for "getting it wrong''.

No coup here, said Shearer's loyal MPs. Nothing to see, move along please. Labour's supporters on social media quickly picked up the chant, mocking Garner and any other journalist who gave credence to the story for the fact that, as at the time of writing, Shearer was still the leader of the Labour Party (you may wish to check this is still the case). 

So I thought it might be useful for readers who have had less experience with covering coups than Garner - or myself - to set out again a few basic rules of coup plotting. 

The idea is to destablise the leader first, to soften him or her up for the bloodletting to follow. This is normally done by having a word in the ear of a journalist you can trust not to dob you in. 

You do this for a number of reasons. Going public makes the leader's job more difficult. It probably leads to a further decline in the leader's popularity with the public. And it sends a signal to your colleagues that a plot to roll the leader is under way. 

These things, as the great sage Rachel Hunter once said, don't happen overnight. But they do happen. Take events across the Ditch for instance. It took Kevin Rudd three goes to regain the leadership of the ALP. He and his henchmen conducted a destabilisation campaign against Julia Gillard for months, and went through several false starts before they finally got the numbers they needed. 

Another point for those less versed in the art of coup plotting is that these things are not an exact science. Because plausible deniability is needed at all times, those doing the plotting can't be sure how many supporters they have, and therefore when the execution may take place. 

The third point is, as I emphasised above, that those involved will absolutely lie about it. Indeed, their dishonesty is expected and accepted by press gallery journalists. One of the first things I was told when I started in the gallery was that coup plots were the one time when MPs were expected to lie to journalists - and when it was considered acceptable for them to do so. 

The counterfactual - anti-politician Don Brash notwithstanding - is laughable. "Yes Mr Journalist, you've got me bang to rights. You've rumbled me. I am planning to overthrow my leader. I admit it. Righto, I'll just go and give the party my resignation.''

Finally, ask yourself this simple question: why do you think there are rumours about Labour's leadership? Do you honestly believe it's some VRWC (vast right-wing conspiracy) dreamed up by Whaleoil and the conservative press? Or could it, just perhaps, be because where there's smoke there's usually fire?

And if you don't believe that, here's another question: if it's so easy to get a leadership coup rumour going in the media, where's the story about John Key's leadership being under threat?

The Left will claim it's media bias. Yeah, right. That's why National was dogged by leadership spills throughout Clark's iron-fisted reign as Labour leader.   

So if Garner made any error in his declaration a coup was under way this week it was that he put a timeframe on it - i.e. that it was under way that evening.

I am absolutely sure Labour MPs are plotting against Shearer. Why wouldn't they be? It's sheer self-preservation. Shearer's personal popularity with the public is woeful. Most people have no idea who he is, and those who do know think he's a shambolic, equivocal, spineless ditherer with the political nous of a first-term MP. 

Shearer is a lovely man. I'd let him babysit my kids without hesitation. But to date he has revealed neither the fortitude nor the authority to lead a political party - let alone be a prime minister. 

He is not only unable to articulate Labour vision and policy, he also does not seem to possess the political radar required to see trouble coming - whether it be the hypocrisy of his MPs dining with Sky City or the public impact of the party's proposed "man ban". 

What sealed it for me was when Shearer was asked why he didn't put a stop to the "man ban" proposal when he first heard about it. He replied Labour was a democratic party, "and I can't just bang my fist and get what I want''. 

Excuse me? Why ever not? Does Shearer honestly believe Clark ran Labour as a democracy? Flat hierarchies may work fine in NGOs like the UN but party politics is feral. The leader of the pack needs to be, at best, a benevolent dictator. 

Labour's MPs know this. They are wringing their hands in despair. The window for rolling Shearer is open, but not for much longer. But when to leap, and into whose arms? 

Those are the only questions keeping Shearer in his job. 

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