OPINION: According to many political pundits, David Shearer's continued leadership of the Labour Party could hang in the balance at the party's annual conference in Auckland at the weekend.
Unless he delivers a powerful, even blockbusting, speech when he addresses the conference on Sunday, so some believe, he will be pushed to resist a groundswell that has built over the last few weeks - at least among newspaper columnists and bloggers - that wants to see him replaced.
That may be pitching it a bit high. For one thing, such things are seldom turned by one performance alone. A powerful speech may sway an audience briefly but reality soon reasserts itself and no permanent change occurs. This is particularly so in the current age of instant criticism, as the recent verbal assault by the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, against the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, illustrates. A claque that sought to herald the speech as a tour de force was soon drowned out by a chorus pointing out its considerable defects.
True, if Shearer's speech was to be a disaster then the discontent against him would become irresistible. But that is not likely. The worries about Shearer are not about his capacity to perform in formal settings with prepared notes.
It is rather his lack of political sure-footedeness when speaking ad lib, an inability to be the master of a host of issues and to be able to quickly and confidently articulate his thoughts about them, that alarms many of his followers, coupled with the growing realisation that rather than getting better as time goes on and he gains more experience he seems to be getting worse.
Shearer's supporters were aware, when he was chosen as leader, of his tendency to get tongue-tied under pressure. The more starry-eyed of them believed that his undoubted decency of character, along with his background in doing good, albeit well-remunerated, work with the United Nations (a useful counterpoint, as they saw it, to Prime Minister John Key's activities in global currency markets), would outweigh that shortcoming.
As it has turned out, however, performance when cornered by the media pack in the the corridors of Parliament and in the bearpit of question time in the House is more crucial than ever in today's media-heavy world, and in those forums and on television Shearer's stumbling and stammering have all in his party cringing.
The loudest muttering against Shearer is being led by bloggers and columnists from the liberal Left. For the moment the caucus appears loyal, all possible contenders insisting they are 100 per cent behind him. That, however, should be regarded with considerable scepticism.
For a start, when Shearer got himself into a horrendous tangle with unsubstantiated allegations against Key over the Government Communications Security Bureau fuss, his colleagues took an awful long time to come to his defence. Further, if any plot to unseat him were going on, the plotters would obviously stay clandestine for as long as they could.
A factor inhibiting a coup is the lack of an alternative with predominating support. Of two possible contenders, David Cunliffe lost against Shearer last time and is widely regarded as too satisfied with himself by half and Grant Robertson is, for now at least, a Shearer loyalist.
It was lack of an obvious successor that kept Phil Goff in the leadership until the last election, but not many in Labour would regard that as an entirely happy precedent.
- The Press