September 24 2017, updated 4:32am

Musical chairs for Labour's faithful and new

Last updated 00:00 16/09/2007

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Speaker Margaret Wilson is tipped to replace New Zealand's High Commissioner to London Jonathan Hunt when his three-year term ends in April.

Wilson's departure would make room for new blood in Prime Minister Helen Clark's coming Cabinet reshuffle and the return of the old war horse could be an important strategic boost for Labour in the lead up to next year's election.

Clark will be desperate to present a rejuvenated line-up as a poll released yesterday shows even Labour supporters expect it to lose the election.

The Fairfax-Nielsen poll has National on 50 per cent support, well ahead of Labour on 36 per cent. Translated into seats in the house, it would mean National could govern alone, with 65 seats in a 120-member Parliament.

Asked who they thought most likely to win, 62 per cent predicted a National victory while just 26 per cent believed Labour would govern, with 40 per cent of Labour voters predicting a loss.

Though he was dubbed "the minister for wine and cheese" because of his fondness for food and wine, Hunt's backroom troubleshooting skills could be put to good use by Labour as it enters election year trailing in opinion polls.

Wilson, whose pending departure from parliament was revealed by the Sunday Star-Times in June, is expected to leave before the election. Labour sources have said she could either replace Hunt or pick up an academic post in the UK.

She is seen as an obvious contender for the plum London job. She is also extremely close to Clark, who ultimately decides.

If Wilson left she could be replaced by mistake-prone Justice Minister Mark Burton, whose inept handling of the Electoral Finance Bill means he is expected to be shunted sideways in the Cabinet reshuffle.

He has previously wanted the speaker's chair. A Labour source told the Star-Times such a switch would be "a very elegant solution" and the idea was "fair speculation".

The reshuffle is expected before the party's annual conference in early November.

Sources said the party's front bench is unlikely to undergo a significant overhaul, with big hitters like Finance Minister Michael Cullen, Health Minister Pete Hodgson, Police Minister Annette King and Defence Minister Phil Goff deemed irreplaceable.

The highest-ranked MPs said to be under scrutiny are Burton, Trevor Mallard, Auckland Issues Minister Judith Tizard and Courts Minister Rick Barker.

Even without demotions from the front bench, Clark's wider ministry has several vacancies, with the departures of Taito Phillip Field, former Environment Minister David Benson-Pope and Dover Samuels confirmed to retire at the election.

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Corrections Minister Damien O'Connor is also expected to lose the portfolio after his parliamentary rugby team trip with a suspended prison guard. Mita Ririnui and Mahara Okeroa are also at risk of demotion.

Clark is expected to give big promotions to some backbenchers, with Shane Jones and possibly Maryan Street going straight into Cabinet.

Rotorua MP Steve Chadwick, strong in health, local government and environment, is also expected to leapfrog up the ranks, possibly as a minster outside Cabinet.

National leader John Key is already taking snipes at likely changes, saying "(Clark's) fishing in a very shallow pond without a very deep hook".

- Sunday Star Times

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