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In one respect, struggling Labour leader David Shearer should be pleased.
That so many of his colleagues are bothering to undermine his leadership indicates they think the prime ministership is in reach.
If they thought all was lost for 2014 – as National and Labour did in 2002 and 2011 respectively – they would sit this one out, let poor Mr Shearer cop the loss, and get busy positioning themselves for the post-election fallout, with the dream of becoming prime minister in 2017.
That Grant Robertson, David Cunliffe and others are jockeying for position, even at the expense of Labour’s short-term polling, is the clearest evidence they think Mr Shearer has a good chance.
(I’m taking it for granted that readers understand that none of these people really believe John Key is doing a bad job or that they would do much different. It’s all just game playing in their quest for immortality.)
The vicious attack on Mr Cunliffe by two senior Labour MPs, reported by TV3’s Duncan Garner, was designed to look as if it came from Shearist loyalists, most probably party strategist Trevor Mallard.
Mr Mallard has given assurances it was not him and it almost certainly wasn’t.
He is loyal enough to Mr Shearer, and savvy enough, to know that the attack on Mr Cunliffe was damaging not just to the apparent challenger but also to the incumbent, because it again publicly raised leadership issues.
It is unthinkable, of course, that Mr Garner would reveal his sources, but there is little doubt the briefings came from people ill-disposed to both Mr Shearer and Mr Cunliffe – people who might gain from damaging both.
Perhaps unfairly, that makes Mr Robertson’s faction the prime suspects. After all, the disloyal deputy is almost always the instigator of a coup, as Bill Rowling, Jim McLay, Mike Moore and Jenny Shipley all discovered.
Mr Robertson is a brilliant political operator, with the potential to be New Zealand’s first openly gay prime minister.
He first became prominent in the 1990s as a student leader, leading the fight for free university education, while studying for a politics degree with an honours thesis on student union restructuring.
He then entered the foreign ministry and was posted to the UN in New York addressing issues like climate change, decolonisation, aid and human rights.
His UN service made him perfect for then environment minister and former communist Marian Hobbs, who appointed him to her Beehive office.
He then rose to become Helen Clark’s deputy chief of staff, and drove through interest-free student loans over Michael Cullen’s objections.
When Ms Clark left for New York, Mr Robertson, by then installed as Wellington Central MP, became the undisputed leader of Labour’s neo-Clarkist faction. After Chris Carter headed for Kabul, he also became leader of the party’s powerful lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, takataapui, fa’afafine and intersex sector, Rainbow Labour.
The implicit deal that saw Mr Robertson become deputy leader to the right-leaning, pro-business, anti-dole-bludger Mr Shearer was designed to unite the party although Mr Robertson has since colonised Mr Shearer’s office with his own loyalists.
Alas for Labour, unity has been undermined by ambition.
In 2011, Phil Goff was fewer than 10,000 votes away from forming a Labour/Green/NZ First/Maori Party/Mana government.Since then, according to the polls, Mr Shearer has won back nearly 100,000 Labour voters, mainly at NZ First’s expense. It suggests all Labour needs to do to form a Labour/Green/Mana government in 2014 is stay the course.
The problem is that if Mr Shearer becomes prime minister in 2014, Mr Robertson knows he never will.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Jim Bolger worried from time to time about Winston Peters, Ruth Richardson, Philip Burdon, Doug Graham and Jenny Shipley but he could rely on the total loyalty of deputy Don McKinnon.
Likewise, Ms Clark and Dr Cullen were never friends, but he resolved after his failed coup in early 1996 to be completely loyal.Today, Bill English’s dreams of being prime minister are long gone, meaning Mr Key need never worry about his deputy confronting him at the airport with the numbers.
If only Mr Shearer could similarly take Mr Robertson’s loyalty for granted, he might gain the confidence to speak competently to the public and thereby become justified in suggesting to Anuschka Myer that she give Bronagh Key a call to measure up the curtains at Premier House.