OPINION: Brain experts are always telling us that the subconscious is never off-duty, and it was pretty clear yesterday that David Cunliffe's deeper mind hijacked his mouth during his first clash with the Prime Minister as Labour leader in Parliament.
He's had an intense few weeks of campaigning for the new job most caucus colleagues didn't want him to have, and 48 hours of demoting some of them, and sacking their staff. So when the time came to demand answers from John Key about the Government's protection of tech company Chorus, out came the word "caucus" instead. Quite the Freudian slip.
He kept his composure during the resulting laughter, but when he repeated his question, about a phone call from the chairman of Chorus, out came "caucus" again - followed by another volley of hilarity.
Government MPs crowed that Labour had picked another mumbler and stumbler to replace the verbally maladroit David Shearer.
This was hardly the atmosphere Mr Cunliffe had been shooting for in this keenly awaited first clash of the Titans, and he had to marshall his expression carefully to mask his irritation.
"Why don't we try that one more time?" he said wryly to Speaker David Carter, before finally managing to say "Chorus" - which drew him a chorus of mock approval from the Government benches. And possibly a caucus of mock approval from his own benches. Mr Cunliffe was not the only Labour MP working on meticulous facial ambivalence. The emotional turmoil of the leader's office purge and the round of snakes-and-ladders career adjustments that always follow a leadership change meant only Mr Cunliffe's core supporters were looking convincingly happy and relaxed. Most as yet have scant idea where they now stand in the pecking order, and looking across at gurning Government MPs can't have been soothing.
As Mr Cunliffe himself had sensibly warned, he was not going to be able to demolish Mr Key in a single question time outing, and he kept his Chorus attack low-key - though he got out a heartfelt "crony capitalism" at the end.
Mr Key was as irritatingly perky as ever, though he had to make a trip to refill his water glass during his session with Mr Cunliffe, prompting Labour's Annette King to gloat, "Dry mouth! Nerves!" He repeatedly flouted the question time rules to make political digs, including at demoted deputy and unsuccessful leadership hopeful Grant Robertson.
Mr Robertson's new job is Shadow Leader of the House, so he was the primary complainant about Mr Key's illicit jibes.
Mr Key boasted that unlike Mr Cunliffe, "I do get a phone call from my caucus . . . but I can only imagine what the call is like from [demoted shadow House leader] Trevor [Mallard] in San Francisco!"
This earned him a smack from Mr Carter.
"Get on with it and answer the question!" bellowed Mr Robertson.
"The Labour Party members did get on with it, and they said they didn't want you, Grant," Mr Key said.
Mr Cunliffe decided to return fire. He asked whether the untidy handling of the Chorus situation spelt the death knell for Communications Minister Amy Adams' leadership ambitions.
Mr Key beamed. "I really don't think my caucus is looking for a new leader right now, but after question time today, the Labour Party might . . ."
At which point Mr Carter silenced his microphone, forcing Mr Key to keep whatever bon mot he had ready for another day.
- © Fairfax NZ News