The anatomy of a Labour leadership spill: Little exits stage Left pursued by the polls

STUFF

Andrew Little steps down as Labour leader and is replaced by his former deputy Jacinda Ardern.

OPINION: It was early Tuesday when Andrew Little decided finally to call it quits.

In Auckland, after launching Labour's East Coast Bays campaign, he had taken the night to mull it over and some doubts may have lingered.

But faced with a round of early morning media interviews, Little realised he had to make a call. He told his staff to cancel his morning slots and headed for the airport and a flight to Wellington.

It was the point his closest advisers knew the end had come.

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But at Parliament his colleagues were uncertain. Many expected him to stay.

Then as Little came through the terminal in Wellington he fended off a reporter's question by denying he was quitting – spreading confusion throughout his staff and MPs and leaving the media trying to reconcile completely contradictory stories.

Andrew Little spoke at Labour's East Coast Bays campaign before retreating to his Auckland hotel room to ponder his ...
HANNAH PETERS/GETTY IMAGES

Andrew Little spoke at Labour's East Coast Bays campaign before retreating to his Auckland hotel room to ponder his future as leader on Monday night.

SEEDS OF A SPILL

But the seeds of the spill that saw Jacinda Ardern handed the Labour leadership started in earnest just a week before.

There had been rumblings in Tuesday's caucus meeting with MPs detecting a sharp softening in support in voter land.

In part that was being driven by votes switching to the Greens in sympathy with co-leader Metiria Turei's "benefit bomb" – her admission she had lied to get a higher benefit back in the 1990s.



But MPs could feel the squeeze coming on from the other end of the spectrum as Winston Peters barn stormed around the provinces and – like the Greens – delivered a message of radical change that Labour's more conservative and centrist plan was not matching.

But there was more. Andrew Little was not energising voters. And when it came to a stark contrast with Prime Minister Bill English . . . well it just wasn't happening.

And then came the bombshell that moved a leadership change from beyond the pale to an odds-on possibility. There had been bad polls before but Labour's own pollsters UMR Research reported a dive in support to an all time low of 23 per cent – worse even than Labour's David Cunliffe-led disaster of 2014.

Over just a month the party's support had racheted down six percentage points from 29 per cent – and was not showing any sign of bottoming. Little consulted leading MPs to ask if he should go and was assured of their support. His deputy – and logical replacement – Jacinda Ardern was staying loyal and refusing to countenance a "Plan B" that would send Little down the road. 

At 23 per cent, Little's own re-election would be in doubt – and how can you campaign as an alternative PM when you may not even be in the House? Other senior MPs would also be out, and the plan to rejuvenate the caucus with a raft of new and diverse faces would be in tatters.

TIME TO DRAW BREATH

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It was then just a question of drawing a breath and waiting.

If the public polls were not as dire, then maybe Labour could avoid a meltdown and struggle through the next eight weeks – and hope for a miracle Labour-Green-NZ First Government after September 23.

But when the One News-Colmar Brunton poll landed on Sunday, confirming Labour at 24 per cent, things began to move fast, accelerated by Little's interview about the poll.

Conceding he had offered to resign was bad enough. It strobed weakness.

But he also conceded he could not credibly lead a Government at that 24 per cent level of support.

It was a "can't do" moment and a kick in the teeth for the party's hopes and morale.

By Monday, the drums were starting to beat loudly, with a third poll from Newshub merely confirming the 23-24 per cent polling range.

The internal message was clear; Little would not be ousted by force, but perhaps he could be persuaded to go?

BAD OR WORSE AHEAD?

He was coming to his own conclusion. The party's campaign launch was just over two weeks away, another UMR poll could be as bad or worse, and time was running out.

A full-on coup, opposed by Little and his lieutenants would be too divisive and could stir the ire of the unions and membership, who normally play a pivotal part in leadership selections. But they are out of the mix within three months of an election when all the power to hire and fire the boss is in the hands of the MPs.

Party insiders deny the "numbers" were being done in the classic sense of a coup. But chief whip Kris Faafoi was ringing MPs to take the pulse and a Jacinda Ardern-Kelvin Davis ticket was being floated.

Meanwhile, Little was told to sleep on his final call in his Auckland hotel. The effective deadline was Tuesday's caucus meeting. 

Back among his MPs, the sense on Monday night was that it was a line call. Even his closest allies in the unions and parties were saying it was impossible to read how he would jump. And MP Stuart Nash had nailed his colours to Little's mast, saying the party would be doomed if there was a leadership spill.

But by Tuesday morning – and without Little showing his hand – the pendulum seemed to swing towards him toughing it out.

Senior MPs at breakfast time were sure he was "going nowhere". The clear denial he was quitting, made when he was door-stopped at Wellington airport by RNZ reporter Mei Heron, just added fuel to the rumour. 

CONFUSION SPREADS

It fed a growing sense of confusion as reporters gathered for Little at a 10am press conference. One minute Labour insiders were on song with the signalling all morning – he was staying.

Then, just minutes before he arrived, the word rippled around Labour's office suite in Parliament Buildings.

He was going, and Monday night's Ardern-Davis "ticket" would be in charge by lunchtime.

One insider said Little had been confident as he headed to Parliament he had the "numbers" but at some point had realised he didn't.

There might be no coup, but he could not go on as leader faced with that reality.

But in truth Little had made his call already. And that was to Ardern from his last ride in a Crown car, to tell her "the worst job in politics" was all hers.

 - Stuff

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