Vance: Floods? PM can't keep a straight face

MUG SHOT: Derpface with the Prime Minister of New Zealand John Key.
MUG SHOT: Derpface with the Prime Minister of New Zealand John Key.

Name another world leader who could get away with making a gesture that literally means stupid while his home city drowns in the worst floods for a century.

British prime ministers barely get to unpack a suitcase before they are called back to deal with some crisis or another. Their media demand it. President Barack Obama cut short his Hawaiian Christmas vacation to talk America down off the fiscal cliff.

But with approval ratings still in the stratosphere, John Key can pull off "derp face" even while allegations of cronyism and conflict of interest are swirling around one of his senior ministers.

Meanwhile, Labour leader David Cunliffe spent the week looking decidedly derpy after revelation after revelation about his "secret" trusts.

There was much head-scratching about the reasons behind the idiocy. Journalists will always get their knickers in a knot over trusts, mainly because it looks like someone is trying to hide something. Trying to hide the thing you are trying to hide by taking days to answer quite straightforward questions is only going to make it worse.

That Cunliffe had operated more than one trust - which also remained hidden from the registry of MPs' financial interests - was a bonus strike.

After absorbing one blow after another this week, you could forgive the Labour team for curling up in a ball until the election passes them by.

Not so. Like stoic Cantabrians, picking themselves up after another natural disaster, Labour's troops are soldiering on. What else to do when you've got red-devil Matt McCarten fire-breathing down your neck.

On Parliament's Labour floors, preparations for the campaign have gathered apace. The old Leaders' Lounge is now the "war room" and is rapidly filling up with whiteboards and countdown tickers.

Where the party is struggling is a lack of funds. A big-budget overspend on salaries under David Shearer has left Cunliffe hamstrung on recruiting all of the the talent he wants.

As for those ABCs, that Greek chorus of defeatism, McCarten has not wielded the iron- fist, as expected. Recognising that Trevor Mallard and Clayton Cosgrove will not exit the party gracefully, McCarten is harnessing the mongrel, appreciating that, along with Shane Jones, both men have working-class appeal.

They, and Chris Hipkins, will be encouraged to be more visible. The most pressing issue for Cunliffe is halting this inexorable death by 1000 cuts that is paralysing momentum.

The first six months of his leadership have been dogged with questions of credibility. The wariness felt by his fellow MPs bled out into the public consciousness. Then there were the discrepancies in his CV, and the double- standard over Key's opulent house.

National embedded the "Cunliffe is tricky" narrative and couldn't quite believe their luck when their target played the part. Key, remarkably after five years in power, still has a bank of public loyalty stored up.

No matter the problem - whether it be an earthquake, mining disaster, or Judith Collins' lapse of judgment over a glass of milk - he smooths it over with the political equivalent of "there, there".

For Cunliffe, and the party, his problem really is a matter of trust. If he can't overcome that, it's game over.

Sunday Star Times