The canonical ‘but what did David Cunliffe do wrong?’ posts have been from Brian Edwards, but they’ve also popped up on The Standard and various other sites. I don’t know how genuine the bewilderment is, but briefly, all politicians – even senior Labour MPs – know that the public won’t tolerate open factional infighting in a political party. We know from history and our own life experience that organisations consumed by infighting are highly dysfunctional and we won’t trust them with government. (If I have a legacy, let it be Mclauchlan’s First Law of Politics: People don’t want idiots running their county.)
That’s why the media jump all over alleged coup attempts and rumours of war. And it’s why politicians bend over backwards to give the illusion that there is no factionalism within their party. So when a senior caucus member refuses to rule out a coup, it’s a big deal. It’s Doing Something Wrong. It’s kind of like your wife or husband asking you if you plan to cheat on them in three months time. You can give all sorts of cute answers like: ‘I haven’t made a decision on that matter yet,’ or ‘That is not the current subject under discussion.’ But really, any answer other than ‘No’ is unacceptable.
So Shearer had no choice but to demote Cunliffe. The press gallery love it when politicians fight in public and sack each other, so we’ll probably hear lots of giddy squealing about how Shearer is ‘tough’, and that he’s finally showing his leadership qualities. But being forced to sack your top-performing MP from your under-performing front-bench is not a great development for an opposition leader. Shearer isn’t being tough, he took the only option available to him because he’s spent the last year making poor choices, which provoked this coup. He’s cauterised a self-inflicted wound.
He does seem to be turning his public appearances around, at least over the past few days – he’s now well briefed by his staff when he speaks (I guess we’ll hear about how we’re now seeing ‘the real Shearer’). So who knows – maybe this will be a turning point for him. But as usual I remain cautiously pessimistic.