Labour caucus farewells clever, awkward Cunliffe

5:47 am on 2 November 2016

Power Play - Talk to David Cunliffe's caucus colleagues and they describe him as brilliant and analytical but completely and utterly unable to make a decision or come across as authentic.

David Cunliffe distributed food to reporters outside his Herne Bay home.

David Cunliffe distributed food to reporters outside his Herne Bay home. Photo: RNZ / Lauren Baker

Mr Cunliffe announced yesterday he'll be retiring from politics at the next election.

An MP recalls a discussion in the weeks leading up to the 2014 election campaign when Mr Cunliffe was leader about a particular media appearance and whether or not he should do it.

The whiteboard came out, with 'pros' on one side and 'cons' on the other.

The group of senior MPs and staffers thrashed it out, some of the MPs went out to dinner, when they came back Mr Cunliffe was still consulting the whiteboard while the remaining staffer was asleep on the couch.

He was an enthusiastic and loyal supporter of Helen Clark as a fresh faced new MP in 1999 in the seat of Titirangi, armed with his megaphone and red Labour paraphernalia.

That was a relationship that would endure even when Miss Clark moved to her UN job in New York, from where she urged some Labour MPs to support Mr Cunliffe when he ran for leader.

After he lost the contest to David Shearer there was a sharply divided caucus; a group of MPs loyal to Mr Cunliffe and who believed he was the party's true leader, and on the other side the backers of Mr Shearer who saw Mr Cunliffe as a disruptive force within their ranks.

That came to head with one of the most of the fascinating Labour Party conferences in recent years where the internecine battles were fought out in the open on the conference floor.

The party membership narrowly voted to change the rules, with a bearded David Cunliffe staunchly in favour of the new process.

As MPs lined up to mount their arguments for or against the factions were clear, and, refusing to endorse Mr Shearer as leader, Mr Cunliffe was quickly and publicly demoted.

David Cunliffe speaks to media after admitting defeat on election night.

David Cunliffe speaks to media after admitting defeat on election night. Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

As the Labour sands shifted over the following years - Mr Shearer resigned and Mr Cunliffe was elected leader - the feeling among many of his colleagues was that he should be given the opportunity he had long wanted, and if it came to it, the opportunity to fail.

It was not a successful leadership, with the apology for 'being a man', viewed by many as being delivered with false sincerity, epitomising the problems with his campaign and his style.

The caucus was riven, but determined not to show Mr Cunliffe the same disloyalty they had accused him of.

They were grim faced and stoic in their public support of him until the day he too would resign as leader.

One his colleagues described him as being incredibly bright intellectually, but somewhat awkward in social situations, and as 'performing' - having one setting for "public meetings", one for "talking to the people" and one for more informal conversations.

But sometimes those settings got mixed up, leaving people with the impression he was not being his 'real' self.

Andrew Little said Mr Cunliffe had shown him loyalty since he became leader, but it seems evident the message was given to the MP he would not have a shot at becoming a minister if Labour wins in 2017, and that he would be given the room and the respect to start looking for other options.

Outwardly, Mr Cunliffe has made an effort to suppress any remaining desire to become leader and be a team player.

But the wounds of past years run deep and many of colleagues still see him, as described by one, as "narcissistic and messianic", personal qualities that will remain, regardless of any good intentions.

He can leave with the ability to say he chose the opportunity for a career outside of Parliament, with his leader publicly wishing him well, even though of many of caucus have been looking forward to the day he chose to depart.

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