John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Cunliffe and Key's first fight a little lightweight

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The bout everyone had been waiting for began just before 2pm with a lengthy handshake, the Prime Minister making a rare crossing of Parliament's chamber to the Opposition benches to congratulate David Cunliffe on his new job before returning to the Government trenches with every intention of demolishing yet another Labour leader.

It ended at 2.16pm with the new Leader of the Opposition resuming his seat, perhaps a little bruised, but otherwise intact, having failed to do likewise to Key.

Shane Jones might have termed this heavyweight stoush as "David versus the Gorilla", although it is hard to picture Key as some knuckle-dragging primate.

The battle between Auckland's Westie MPs who do not actually live in the West was no Thriller in Manila.

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For his first question to Key as Labour's leader, Cunliffe had chosen the ongoing row over broadband pricing between Telecom's offshoot Chorus and the Government on one side and consumer and industry lobby groups on the other.

As a former Communications minister, Cunliffe well understands the issues. He certainly floated like a butterfly, at times diverging from his set list of questions if warranted.

But the fuss over the Government's stance on a Commerce Commission ruling is complicated. Cunliffe's eight questions to Key failed to build a convincing case of "crony capitalism" on the part of National and Chorus.

Key had come well-briefed, the mass of blue stickies splicing his papers being the clue. Cunliffe thus stung like a butterfly.

The only harm was self-inflicted. At one point, Cunliffe referred to the chairman of Chorus as the "chairman of caucus". When the laughter died down, he inexplicably did exactly the same thing again. When he finally got it right a third time, National MPs burst into ironic cheers and applause.

Cunliffe's verbal slips could be excused. When only 11 of the parliamentary party's 34 MPs supported your candidacy, the word "caucus" tends to be on your mind.

Cunliffe will suffer brief embarrassment. But it won't be lasting damage.

After two days of utter euphoria at winning the leadership contest, however, he has been brought back to earth with what amounted to a reality check over the sheer scale of the task ahead of him.

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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