“Who, me?” On Cunliffe and Coups 101

By Jane Clifton In Politics

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Cunliffe at conference: “a smile that could power the California grid. Picture: NZ Listener/David White

It’s the “Who, me?” and all the eyelash-batting that always gets me about coup fomenters.

Like a dozen plotters before him, David Cunliffe has today paid the price for believing, against all historical precedent, that he could mime his disloyalty, and not get into trouble because he didn’t actually utter the naughty words out loud.

For all that his supporters, inside and outside the caucus, are insisting that he did nothing wrong, he really and truly did the coupster’s equivalent of waving his knickers at disembarking sailors. He followed several of the bog-standard, by-the-numbers steps taught in Coups 101, to the point that he might have studied at the knee of Maurice Williamson, Brian Connell or Richard Prebble.

1. You make speeches with tacit but heavily coded inferences that if they made you the leader, you would introduce kick-butt policies that the incumbent is too gutless/politically unsound/incompetent to contemplate – carefully omitting specifics.

2. You tickle up edginess among the many anxious party supporters who are panicking at what they perceive is a lack of progress in the party’s profile and poll fortunes.

3. You agree to a live TV interview on the morning of the party’s annual conference debate about the rules for electing the leader at which you conspicuously avoid expressing support for the leader.

4. You do nothing to dispel the inference that dissatisfaction with the leadership, and an appetite for your ascendancy, is a big factor in the conference making sweeping constitutional changes about the leader’s election which appear to put a banana skin under the current leader’s foot.

5. You spend the conference wearing a smile that could power the California grid.

And when the media inevitably catches on that coup-fomenting is afoot, you:

6. Hoist your brows to the “Who, me?” position and insist you are innocent.

Frankly, after all that diligent positioning, Cunliffe would have been absolutely devastated if no one noticed he was after the leader’s swively chair . But somehow all plotters cherish the idea that they have been clever enough to retain plausible deniability when the microphones are up their nose and the leader is hurling “please explain” ultimatums.

Cunliffe has been no cleverer than that celebrated clod, Brian “I Speak My Mind and I Hate Cats ” Connell. And, thus far, no more successful.

Bear in mind, too, that Cunliffe has form.

MPs in the once rigorously discreet Labour caucus were openly frothing over his failure, as party finance spokesman last election, to produce his policy work on time and to do sufficient heavy lifting on the campaign trail. At one crucial point, he even went on holiday. Either he was lazy, or was deliberately being unhelpful, colleagues fumed.

In a chorus the like of which I’ve never heard from within any political party, in however much of a dysfunctional phase, most concluded the latter: that he had deduced that Labour would lose quite badly (admittedly not a daring conclusion) and had decided to assist Phil Goff’s image of weakness by not helping too much.

Till now, Goff at least did him the courtesy of not fingering him for the undermining. That pretence has now passed. Obviously Goff’s failings were rather larger than a lack of Cunliffe-power. But when an MP as olde-worlde courteous and decent as Goff goes openly dog on you, it’s time to reflect.

Cunliffe’s supporters are absolutely right about two things. Shearer has failed to fire and inspire, and serious questions remain about his suitability for the job, which will need resolving sooner rather than later. And Cunliffe is a talented politician, who has achieved at least a cult following on the far left, and whose loss as an active campaigner will be a blow to Labour.

But Shearer’s supporters are bang on the mark about two salient facts as well. Shearer is doing better than Helen Clark was at the same early stage of her Labour leadership, so party anxiety about the polls may be foolish catastrophising. And all the ability in the world count for little if most of your colleagues have lost faith in your goodwill and loyalty.

In an ideal world, the caucus could have had a robust sort-out behind that extensively filmed wooden panelled door, and come out with a reasonably credible kiss-and-make-up story. Labour is not so flush with talent that it can easily afford to lose someone of Cunliffe’s stature to backbench purdah. David Shearer’s career has founded on broking peace deals among hostiles, and the urbane Cunliffe is hardly your seasoned desert warlord.

But it’s a mark of the long-burning fury of a majority of MPs – including some who voted for Cunliffe in the post-election leadership contest – that there was scant willingness to forgive him this time.

It was easy enough for past perpetrators of disloyalty like Chris Carter, Brian Connell and Maurice Williamson to be dogboxed. At the time of their treacherous outings, they weren’t particularly valuable contributors to the big picture – or even useful low-profile Cinderellas. But the backbenching of Cunliffe is a massive loss for Labour. That underscores the scale of the decision Shearer has been able to take. Cunliffe’s disloyalty has approached Chris Carter levels of blatancy. And he would be lucky to muster nine votes, five short even of the new 40% caucus trigger for a party-wide leadership election.

Of course, the uncomfortable corollary to Shearer’s no-brainer decision to dogbox Cunliffe is that the wider party is by no means of the same mind as the caucus. The flavour of decision-making at the weekend’s conference made this very clear. This remains both a risk for Shearer and an opportunity for Cunliffe. A lot of the party activists have bought the line that Cunliffe is the party’s criminally unrecognised saviour, and what they will doubtless see as his crucifixion today will intensify Cunliffe’s support base.

The February re-election of the party leader, newly mandated by the party by a respectable voting margin, ensures that Shearer versus Cunliffe is a fixture for the next three months (one that at least has the merit of helping tide the Press Gallery over the news desert of the silly season).

But the party needs to ask itself why most of those who work most closely with Cunliffe have chosen to take him out of play, with all the risk of martyrdom and loss of firepower that that entails.

They could do no better than bone up on the career trajectory of one Kevin Rudd in Australia. As a reluctant participant in a passive-aggressive family feud based on transTasman rivalry, I could never concede that Cunliffe even tiptoed close to the levels of personality toxicity and selfishness attributed to the former Australian PM.

Cunliffe is downright pleasant to deal with, and it’s impossible to imagine him doing anything even faintly as obnoxious as making an air stewardess cry because she gave him the wrong sandwich.

But Rudd’s demise should be an object lesson to any ambitious politician, most especially Cunliffe. It’s the old adage: be careful how you treat people on the way up, because by God, you’ll sure enough meet them on the way down.

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