It was two days after the Darren Hughes affair broke that the rumour started spreading. David Parker was doing the numbers, the whisperers whispered. Phil Goff was in trouble.
Within hours, Parker was ringing media in the Press Gallery to vehemently deny it.
The rumour was seeded by Labour's opponents, both he and Goff claimed, to try to destabilise the party.
The rumours came to nothing but what they did do, regardless of their genesis, was elevate the bookish David Parker's name from an occasional mention in the lists of potential future leaders of Labour, to cementing it among the top list.
Parker, 51, declined to be interviewed for this piece beyond clarifying some details of his personal life when asked, about which he said he was "private but my private life is not secret."
That private life is this: He separated from his wife at the start of 2009. They had three children together - aged 11 to 18 - and people close to him say the break up caused him to briefly consider leaving politics.
He lives in Dunedin and is now seeing Auckland-based artist Barbara Ward, who was the partner of musician Chris Knox and who still cares for Knox following his debilitating stroke June 2009.
Other Labour MPs were willing to talk about Parker, although only a few would speak on the record and most would not discuss the leadership issue at all.
A fellow Dunedin-ite, outgoing MP Pete Hodgson had known Parker since he first took an active interest in politics in 1999. In his maiden speech, Parker describes Hodgson as his mentor. Mr Hodgson remembers his first impressions were of a "nice guy, genuine guy and a smart guy."
"That might be enough or it might not. But as time went on he learnt quickly."
Then 40, Parker had worked as a lawyer in Dunedin and Queenstown and was a co-founder of Dunedin's community law centre. He then turned his hand to small business - working on start-up bio-technology businesses alongside the late Otago property investor and entrepeneur Howard Paterson. As well as a fund management venture, he had interests in a café and a doomed theatre and was a manager of Blis Technologies from its start up.
He tasted both success and failure, coming close to bankruptcy at one point. He has previously credited those years with teaching him the lesson of becoming over-confident.
His parents were Labour supporters, Hodgson said, "but David wasn't a person who wanted to be Prime Minister when he was in form four." Parker turned up at Labour's door out of frustration over the reforms of the National Party in the 1990s.
Former Labour Party president Mike Williams remembered first meeting Parker when he was fundraising in Dunedin and Parker turned up on behalf of Howard Paterson. Parker was a member of the Dunedin electorate committee and told Williams he wanted to be a Labour candidate.
Mike Williams described Parker as "sharp as a tack, very even tempered."
"He goes straight to the heart of an issue and he's got a bloody brilliant CV."
He made a dramatic entry to Parliament - placed too low on the list to expect to get into Parliament, the Roxburgh-born Parker instead took on Gavan Herlihy in the National stronghold of the Otago electorate. He campaigned through a bitterly cold winter across the largely rural electorate, and won it by 684 votes. Although helped by the nationwide trouncing of National that year, it was nonetheless an impressive feat. He lost the seat three years later, but by then had earned a high list placing.
In his maiden speech, he said he felt like Harry Potter arriving at Hogwarts. But he made his mark with the leadership almost immediately. 2002 was the Corngate election - the year in which Nicky Hager published his book claiming a government coverup over genetically modified corn grown in New Zealand. As a member of the select committee inquiry into the issue, David Parker was delegated to investigate and report back to caucus on it. Williams said it showed the impression Parker had already made.
"David Parker already by that time had the presence, the clout and veracity to have his word accepted."
Parker became a minister in 2005, after just one term in Parliament. His grasp of detail was rewarded in his portfolios. What Steve Maharey was to social policy reform, Parker became to environmental and energy reform. An avid environmentalist, his biggest legacy was likely the design of the emissions trading scheme, despite National's later changes to it.
He had his own annus horribilis - 2006 when he resigned his portfolios after allegations in Investigate magazine that he filed false Companies Office records. He was cleared by the Companies Office six weeks later and quickly reinstated. In the same year he had to contend with the power crisis which took out power in Auckland as well as parts of the South Island.
In Opposition, Parker's efforts were rewarded by Phil Goff in his recent re-shuffle with a promotion from 10th ranking to four, pitting him directly against Energy minister Gerry Brownlee with the economic development and energy portfolios, as well as his shadow Attorney General role.
He is also part of the finance team in an election year in which the economy will dominate.
Parker was also handed the battle-field areas of electoral reform and the foreshore and seabed in which Labour needed to work closely with National to try to secure a consensus. That was achieved on electoral reform, but narrowly failed on the foreshore and seabed after Labour pulled its support during the select committee stages.
Despite that, his direct opponent Attorney General Chris Finlayson speaks well of Parker, saying he took part in discussions in a very moderate way.
"Everyone plays politics at some stage, but on issues where one tries to get broad consensus he'd be the sort of person one would get involved."
Parker has also become instrumental in policy formulation. More junior midbench MPs said Parker was widely viewed as one of the party's top policy gurus, and was a natural go-to man for other MPs who needed help or a verdict on their own policy formation. His closest colleagues include Shane Jones and Maryan Street and while he is understood to be within leader Phil Goff's inner circle, he lacks the influence of Trevor Mallard.
His colleague Maryan Street's name has been mentioned by some commentators as a natural deputy for Parker on a leadership and the recent rumours included her name as one of the plotters - something she too denied. She refused to comment about Parker's leadership potential, but said Parker had become a close friend since she entered Parliament in 2005.
"He's thoughtful, gutsy, principled, honest. I trust his head and I trust his heart as well. I trust his instincts - he's got good Labour instincts with a good head."
Although none denied he had ambition, it was a quiet ambition which he believed could be borne out through hard work rather than chest-beating. Leadership was not an at any cost matter for him. There is little doubt he has no intention of moving against Goff before the election, even if he approached and told he could take it. He has a deep loyalty to Goff and Annette King and those close to him say his ambition comes coupled with a healthy self-awareness of both his own place and the party's place.
Hodgson said Parker was annoyed that his name was among the rumours of last week and could understand his reticence to be interviewed.
"He understands he's doing well in politics. He's no fool. He knows that he's doing well, that he's doing better than he used to and he knows he's sort of competitive. But he is not the sort of guy who would want to push himself forward in any presumptuous or premature way. It's not pure modesty. It's a mixture of modesty and common sense."
In a place where envy runs rife, it was difficult to find anyone within Labour with a bad word to say about Parker.
He was described as having integrity, modest, respected, hard working, under-rated, super-smart, and "a rare blend of being smart but also social." It came as a surprise to some too discover he had a gentle, often wry sense of humour. His attention to detail was seen as both a virtue and a flaw. Two mid-bench MPs said his skill with policy formulation made him a real asset to the party and he was often sought out to help check other MPs' policy work.
Even Phil Twyford, who flatted with Parker in Wellington for two years until recently, could not recall any teabags in sinks, or socks on the floor - "he was pretty well housetrained." He enjoys a few drinks on occasion but is not a heavy drinker.
Likeability alone does not make a leader. One senior MP acknowledges Parker's low public profile is an issue.
"But was Jim Bolger charismatic? No, though he was rat cunning. If we wanted a very staid Geoffrey Palmer style Prime Minister, [Parker] is the best we've got."
Massey University Associate Professor Claire Robinson, a commentator on political communication, said if the regard Parker was held in by his colleagues did not translate to the wider electorate, it would count for little.
"If you're going to be likeable, you can't just be likeable to the people around you. Up to this point, David Parker has not presented himself as an alternative leader so we don't know what he's got to offer. It's very hard for people outside the Labour Party to know if he's the real deal."
She said Parker has another quality that could be crucial when Labour does make a decision on its leader - he is at ease across the factional groupings of the Labour Party. He has a rare background for Labour - environmentalism combined with business and the rural sector and his ability to work with the party's natural enemies make him a valuable asset in an MMP environment.
Asked if he believed Parker was future leadership material, Williams does not hesitate.
"Yeah, I do. I don't think David thinks he's ready yet and probably the rest of the caucus doesn't think he's ready yet. But he makes an impression."
He said Parker was "socially liberal" and did not appear to identify with any specific faction within Labour. "He's a pragmatist economically and he knows how the system works."
While other contenders were liked and loathed in roughly equal quantities, either too unionist or too right-wing, Parker tends to incite only friendship or indifference. He is variously described by colleagues as a Social Democrat and a pragmatist. It is this that has commentators increasingly wondering if Parker fits the Goldilocks theory: he is neither too hot nor too cold, nor too big or too small. Although he may not just right either, in a caucus in which support for the likes of David Cunliffe and Shane Jones are polarised, he could be near enough to it for the caucus to agree on him as a broadly acceptable second choice.
* Labour MP since 2002.
* Age 51, lawyer and entrepreneur. Separated. Three children
* He says: "My private life is not secret."
* Others say: "He understands he's doing well in politics. He's no fool."By Claire Trevett @CTrevettNZH Email Claire