Cunliffe yet to lose his crunch

When he was a junior minister in the Clark Cabinet, David Cunliffe once famously asked a staffer: "If I was a type of cereal, what cereal would I be?"

Even back then, he was obsessed about his "brand", says a former insider.

Most politicians are nakedly ambitious, of course. But few have managed to provoke such visceral dislike on their rise to the top.

Google David Cunliffe and Avondale Market and it explains why he is such a polarising figure within the Labour caucus.

It directs you to a YouTube video of Mr Cunliffe standing on the roof of a bus, booming through a megaphone in a faux working class Polynesian accent about John Key "the money trader" and "greasy little fella in the blue suit".

His opponents say it sums up everything they dislike about the former Cabinet minister. They use words like fake, plastic. Scratch beneath the surface of Cunliffe the politician, suggests one MP, and you find everything that gives politicians a bad name.

The response from Mr Cunliffe's allies would be - "they would say that". Because Mr Cunliffe is also more polished, and far more surefooted than his one-time rival, Labour leader David Shearer. He also has connections and a history with the Labour Party that newcomer Mr Shearer clearly lacks.

But the antagonism toward Mr Cunliffe goes back to his earliest years in Parliament.

Even Mr Cunliffe's mates admit the protege of former prime minister Helen Clark lacks "EQ", shorthand for "emotional intelligence", which translates as a failure to understand the nuances of social situations.

But they say resentment at how fast Mr Cunliffe's star rose also explains the ill-feeling among some of his colleagues.

After losing a leadership contest to Mr Shearer last year, Mr Cunliffe disappeared into his own version of the wilderness, growing a beard and taking a back seat.

But he pointedly announced his comeback by shaving off his beard after delivering a series of provocative speeches to Labour Party faithful and emerged as the new darling of Labour's Left, championed by Left-wing commentator Chris Trotter.

The antagonism spilled into the open yesterday when Labour whip Chris Hipkins accused Mr Cunliffe of actively undermining not just Mr Shearer, but former leader Phil Goff.

That was backed up by claims from the Shearer camp that Mr Cunliffe tried to do the numbers against Mr Goff three weeks before the last election.

Those claims are rubbished by the Cunliffe camp. They point to a whispering campaign after the last election that painted Mr Cunliffe as missing in action in the weeks before the country went to the polls.

But there seems to be widespread agreement that today's vote is unlikely to settle the matter.

Mr Cunliffe is not expected to pack up his tent after today's vote - and the Shearer camp's failure to flush him out by forcing him to throw his hat into the ring suggests he intends to live to fight another day.


Born 1963, married to Karen, and has two sons.

Entered Parliament in 1999 with an impressive pedigree – he is a former Washington diplomat, economist, and Harvard graduate who graduated from Otago University with first-class honours in politics.

His star rose quickly under former prime minister Helen Clark, and he served as health minister in the last Labour government.

The Dominion Post