Political pundits were stunned yesterday when Labour List MP David Parker pulled out of the race for the Labour leadership, and endorsed Mt Albert MP David Shearer.
It is far from unusual to have a candidate withdraw, and endorse another candidate. What is unusual is that the candidate withdrawing was widely regarded as the front runner. Normally it is the candidate coming last who pulls out.
Some of the mystery around Parker's withdrawal is explained by Audrey Young this morning. Parker had named Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson as his running mate, however it seemed he made an unwise choice, as Robertson shifted his support to Shearer, prompting Parker to withdraw.
The ambitious Robertson may still end up Deputy Leader according to Tracy Watkins and Vernon Small, with Parker tipped for Finance if Shearer wins.
They also pick List MPs Shane Jones and Jacinda Ardern to be given front bench spots.
If the speculation is correct, then Shearer would easily win the leadership if a ballot was taken today. He is thought to have the support of Goff, King, Parker, Mallard and Robertson and I just can't see those five ending up in the minority.
However the vote is not for another two weeks, and Shearer is inexperienced. Cunliffe, by contrast, is a very confident and polished public speaker. If Shearer fails to match Cunliffe over the next two weeks as they speak up and down the country, and do assorted media interviews, then support could flow back to Cunliffe. It is never over until it is over.
If Shearer does win, it looks like Cunliffe would not keep his Finance portfolio. This is a mistake, if correct. Cunliffe is very credible in the Finance role, and has the strongest business background of any Labour MP. It would also leave his supporters in caucus disaffected.
A better combination for Shearer if he wins would be Parker as Deputy, Cunliffe as Finance, and Robertson as Shadow House Leader.
While I've got a lot of respect for David Cunliffe, I do think David Shearer would be a better choice for Labour Leader, albeit a more risky choice as Shearer has not proven himself in Parliament.
Shearer was elected to Parliament just 30 months ago. The only person to ascend to leadership in a quicker time was Don Brash with National who did it in just 18 months. This makes Shearer a complete break with the previous Clark Government. One of Goff's major weaknesses was he had entered Parliament when Muldoon was Prime Minister, and was always associated with the past.
Shearer has a number of qualities in his favour. The first is that he is not associated with the past. The second is that he is very likeable. For those who think this is unimportant, should have a look at the incumbent PM and his record approval ratings. Of course just being likeable is not enough, but it helps.
A third factor is his impressive back-story. You could make a film about it.
The fourth factor in Shearer's favour is that he doesn't seem to have the strong ideological dislike of the private sector, that many Labour activists and MPs have. When he stood for the Mt Albert nomination, I highlighted two articles he had written called "Outsourcing War" and "Privatising Protection". He argued that private military companies should not be seen as mercenaries but multinational entrepreneurs, and that they should be regulated rather than banned.
He even went on to say that there could be a role for the private sector in UN peacekeeping and security operations, comparing how the private Executive Outcomes provided 22 months of security to Sierra Leone for $35m, compared to the UN's budgeted $47m for just eight months.
Most people would agree with David Shearer, that decisions on whether to use the public sector or the private sector should be driven by competence, quality and price - not an ideological religious belief that the public sector is superior.
As a National supporter, I know National will not always be in Government. I think a David Shearer led Labour Party will pose more of a threat to National, than any alternative leader. But I still hope that the Labour Caucus will elect Shearer as their leader, as if there is to be a Labour Government, I think the sort of policies we would get under a Shearer administration would be far better than we had under Helen Clark and Michael Cullen, or were offered by Phil Goff.
Shearer is backed by many reformers within Labour. A likely area of reform is around list ranking and candidate selection - specifically the heavy influence union affiliates get in these decisions. Many in the caucus are upset that new MPs such as Carmel Sepuloni, Kelvin Davis and Stuart Nash were ranked below longer serving MPs with union backgrounds. They lost some of their most promising talent from 2008. If a Shearer led Labour can reform the party so that it operates on a one person, one vote principle then Labour is far more likely to regain the votes of its former supporters.
*David Farrar is a centre-right blogger and affiliated with the National Party. A disclosure statement on his political views can be found here.