Labour MPs could dump David Cunliffe

Last updated 15:52 18/06/2014

Cunliffe's lack of recall

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What delicious timing.

OPINION: In only two days time, Labour MPs have a three-month window to get rid of David Cunliffe.

The party's dismal showing in the polls would be reason enough for the leader to be nervous.

But today's revelations about his dealings with wealthy political donor Donghua Liu should have Cunliffe contemplating a return to the backbenches.

From Friday, his caucus has a small window to dump the leader without triggering a primary-style contest that would require the Labour party membership to vote.

In other words, after having an unpopular choice foisted on them in November, MPs are back in control.

In the last few weeks, there has been low-level chatter about a senior MP "doing the numbers."

Former leaders Phil Goff and David Shearer, along with ex-whip Chris Hipkins, have publicly agitated against an electoral accommodation deal with the Internet-Mana alliance in Te Tai Tokerau, stoking the rumours.

This is pretty much business as usual with Labour.

Speculation about in-fighting and loyalty have been par for the course since Labour lost power in 2008.

But until now, political watchers didn't seriously believe anyone was contemplating a coup so close to September's election. That timing is probably what will save Cunliffe's leadership.

Nevertheless, these revelations are seriously damaging.

Not only did Cunliffe twice mislead reporters - about both meeting and advocating, for Liu, but his behaviour looks hypocritical after attacking National's Maurice Williamson, Michael Woodhouse and John Key for their "cash for access" dealings with Liu.

He has also repeatedly goaded Prime Minister Key about his multiple "brain fades."

And for a party desperately trying to convince voters it is ready to govern, shoddy record-keeping with respect to donations and electorate meetings is deeply problematic.

Cunliffe might argue the party didn't take Liu's cash - but he can't definitively prove that. And with two former ministers, Rick Barker and Chris Carter, also linked to Liu, the perception of cronyism will linger.

Cunliffe looked confident as he faced down reporters this afternoon - even adopting Key's "I'm relaxed" mantra.

However, he admitted that he canvassed the opinion of senior colleagues on the blunder, a telling sign he recognised his leadership is on a knife edge. Only deputy David Parker was by his side as he fronted the cameras.

Key, who is in the United States, is looking ahead to acres of positive coverage as he meets with US President Barack Obama this weekend.

Now he's got the pecan on top of his pie. His political foe hobbled himself by fulfilling the "tricky" narrative National has spent months feeding.

Key must be doing cartwheels. The question is, how many Labour MPs are doing the same?

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