Labour's faithful gathered at their conference in Christchurch this weekend for the obvious reason: a byelection is under way in Christchurch East.

After David Cunliffe's address as new leader, they'll all be dragooned on to buses to knock on doors to retain Lianne Dalziel's former seat. With a solid victory they will want to portray themselves as a confident party poised for government.

They haven't earned the right just yet to govern but, since Cunliffe's election, they do have a spring in their step.

Cunliffe has already established himself as a worthy opponent. He is articulate, competent and economically literate.


Labour also knows, though, that John Key's popularity is assailable. The mood in the electorate is sunny and voters rank him as a better custodian of the country.

There is one area Key's government is vulnerable. Most New Zealanders believe National is creating a society of haves and have-nots.

Kiwis pride themselves as egalitarian and this is where Cunliffe has his opening.

Labour goes into its conference buoyed by polls that show it (with the Greens) as competitive.

Despite its bravado, National knows it is in trouble and is desperately trying to breathe life into minnow pretend parties to allow it to hang on.

After Peter Dunne's humiliating infatuation with a journalist was exposed, he'll be lucky to hold his own seat, let alone bring any other MP with him.

National's other pretend coalition partner, Act party leader John Banks, is even more pathetic. No one believes his denial that he sought a secret donation from Kim Dotcom and concealed another from SkyCity.

The most insincere defence surely comes from the Prime Minister, who says he hasn't read the report on the Banks' allegation and therefore accepts Banks' word for now.

This week, Banks has got himself another day in court to try to weasel his way out of a conviction. It no longer matters. Banks is finished, along with his bereft party.

The other dying partner is the discredited Maori Party. This week, a belated request from the Maori Party to meet the Mana Party was driven by its president Naida Glavish and her deputy Ken Mair. The spin is that they are discussing policy. Really? I suspect it's more about Glavish being tipped as front-runner for Pita Sharples' seat and Mair in Tariana Turia's seat.

A three-way fight gives those two seats back to Labour.

Why would Hone Harawira, who says Mana will not enter into coalition with National, agree to an electoral accommodation to give more MPs to the Maori Party to prop up National?

National's latest desperate hope is to have us believe the fundamentalist Christian right - known as the Conservative Party - is a viable partner.

This is silly as it merely takes votes off National and doesn't add to the combined vote. Its spinners would have us believe that Colin Craig would get his votes off New Zealand First. Good luck with that fiction.

This, of course, brings us to the obvious. Labour has spent more than a decade wooing Winston Peters while National has spent the same time dissing him. Key once said he'd resign rather than work with Peters.

Because of that promise, National is forced to build a fictional coalition option within an ever-decreasing circle of shysters.

Meanwhile, Cunliffe went into his conference knowing he has the Greens as his solid ally and NZ First and Mana as likely options if he needs them.

Cunliffe is on show this weekend, not only as Labour's new party leader but also as the real contender for prime minister. The maths is with him, and both Key and he know it.