MPs not about to make new job easier

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 05:00 18/09/2013

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OPINION: Are the cracks already showing in Labour's new-found unity?

The rank and file may have spoken in overwhelmingly backing David Cunliffe as the new leader - but the jury is still out on whether the caucus faction that backed his rival Grant Robertson has accepted the verdict.

The best start to Mr Cunliffe's week would have been appearing with Mr Robertson at his side yesterday as his new deputy.

Instead, that job went to finance spokesman David Parker. That left Mr Cunliffe and Mr Robertson fumbling over explanations as to whether the job was ever offered, or would have been accepted if offered.

There was plenty of murk yesterday surrounding who said what behind closed doors. But it was Mr Cunliffe who had most to gain from offering Mr Robertson the deputy leadership, and Mr Robertson who had most to lose from accepting it.

Two of our most successful prime ministers, Helen Clark and John Key, both forged caucus unity by doing deals with their rivals. The symbolism of following in their footsteps would not have been lost on Cunliffe.

Camp Cunliffe were in no doubt following Sunday's election that a Cunliffe-Robertson ticket was the dream team. More than symbolism was at stake - throwing his support behind Cunliffe would have been a signal to Mr Robertson's supporters that he would act as a unifying force.

The failure to secure that outcome will only give fuel to speculation that he and his supporters instead expect to live to fight another day.

If the deputy leadership was a lost opportunity for symbolism, Cunliffe's first head-to-head battle with Prime Minister John Key was another. In a sign of how heavily caucus headaches had been weighing on his mind, Cunliffe's usual polish deserted him and he muffed his questions to Key not just once but twice.

That won't upset his supporters too much; even on a bad day Cunliffe's sure-footedness in the job is a marked contrast to his predecessor David Shearer.

Cunliffe has bitten off more than most with his leadership - he comes into the job in the unprecedented situation of leading without the backing of a majority of caucus.

But his unceremonious dumping of Leader of the House Trevor Mallard yesterday suggests he will use his overwhelming mandate from the wider party to push through change regardless.

That job would have been a lot easier with Robertson at his side.

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- Fairfax Media

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