The Anyone-But-Cunliffe club was so anti-Cunliffe they chose a man woefully out of his depth in David Shearer and hoped he might be OK. He wasn’t. It was a disaster. And Labour lost two vital years.
But now that club is All-Baking-for-Cunliffe and swallowing dead rats. And all the signs so far for Cunliffe and Labour are promising. At the time of writing, Cunliffe has not put a foot wrong.
He dealt with the reshuffle with aplomb. Reshuffles are the hardest thing to get right. He kept the factions happy and he didn’t deal to his internal enemies. He took a leaf out of Helen Clark’s political diary on that one.
He’s also sent a major signal to the struggling provinces by appointing himself to the regional development portfolio at the same time. Many of the regions are crying out for help. By taking this portfolio Labour is signalling that it will take this issue seriously. It’s a smart move by Cunliffe.
On the economy he will match the Prime Minister. The election debates between the two promise fireworks. There was also a clumsy attempt to damage him with claims his CV was embellished. It probably was, to be honest – but the manner in which National Party hack Matthew Hooton attempted to take Cunliffe out was shrill and awfully ineffective. Cunliffe dealt to him easily.
So what now? Labour needs to build on this start. One poll has showed it up to 37%. Crucially, this gain was at the expense of National, which dropped to 43%, and Labour didn’t take votes off its left-wing partner, the Green Party.
Cunliffe has pitched himself as left wing. I don’t believe he really is. He needs to control the centre of politics. Taking votes off the Greens won’t get him into office; taking votes of John Key will. And this throws up one more big issue. If Labour does get back into the game it means the next MMP election is going to be a close-run thing. One or two points will decide it.
So where does all this leave Winston Peters? I firmly believe John Key will keep his options open and not rule out Peters early next year. If Key is to get a third term he will need a coalition partner. Peter Dunne and John Banks bring nothing to the table. Key needs numbers. Peters might just be his man, but he will play hardball – he owes Key nothing.
So if I were Cunliffe, I’d pop down to the liquor store, buy a couple of bottles of top-notch whisky and invite Winston over for a few late nights before the next election.
Relationships can make a difference in forming governments. It worked for Jim Bolger in 1996. Cunliffe take note.