Claire Trevett on politics
Claire Trevett is a Herald political writer

Claire Trevett: Cunliffe escapes Sisyphean fate in Labour's spring clean

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David Cunliffe and Phil Goff enjoy a joke as they sit alongside Judith Collins and Pakistan High Commissioner Zehra Akbariarrives at a Pakistan Independence day celebration. Photo / Michael Craig
David Cunliffe and Phil Goff enjoy a joke as they sit alongside Judith Collins and Pakistan High Commissioner Zehra Akbariarrives at a Pakistan Independence day celebration. Photo / Michael Craig

The release of figures showing the drop in unemployment this week was accompanied by news of someone who had found new employment: Labour MP David Cunliffe.

David Cunliffe's decision to leave Parliament next year comes soon after the departure of Phil Goff to be Auckland's mayor.

This exodus leaves just David Shearer in the ex-leader's faction of Labour.

In Labour's spring clean of its ex-leaders, Cunliffe's decision in particular will have come as a relief to the caucus.

LISTEN: Labour leader Andrew Little speaks to Mike Hosking about the state of the party

There was less suspicion about Messiah complex in Goff and Shearer, both of whom settled in as lower forms of life on the Labour benches without much upset.

Despite Cunliffe's attempts to prove he could behave, there was always an underlying fear he had plans to rise again.

Few believed he would succeed but it was a distraction-in-waiting nonetheless.

Cunliffe has barely been heard of since Little dispatched him to Siberia.

Little left him in no doubt about his future prospects.

Cunliffe was charged with a role as special adviser to Little on superannuation.

Given Little had already ruled out any major changes to superannuation policy (raising the age and means testing), it effectively cast Cunliffe as Sisyphus, doomed to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back and smash him, over and over again.

Little left it to Cunliffe to decipher the writing on the wall. That writing was in 10 foot tall letters, but after two years Little resigned himself to the likelihood Cunliffe would dig his heels in and stand again. Then about a month ago Cunliffe told him he was considering a new job.

Cunliffe made his final decision last weekend.

The announcement has meant the poor man had to put up with being grilled yet again on the failings of his leadership and the moments that marked it - the "sorry for being a man", the braggadocio of his election night speech, the existential crisis brow-smiting session on the beach at Herne Bay.

Cunliffe was a salutary lesson in the perils of Labour's new leadership election process which allows party members and unions to vote on the leader as well as caucus.

Cunliffe's resignation came in the same week former Labour leader Mike Moore said on Q+A that Labour should change its rules back to allow leadership to be decided by caucus alone.

Moore said caucus support was critical: "because you need to lead people and take them down roads they've not travelled before. It's a very lonely job, and the roads we haven't travelled in the next few years are going to be important to us."

Cunliffe certainly took Labour down roads it had not travelled before: direct to destination 25 per cent. It was Labour's lowest result since the 1920s.

Cunliffe was elected by the members and unions but never had genuine loyalty from his caucus, despite the attempt to put on a show of it. MPs are human, after all.

Little too was elected by the members and unions but is a less polarising character and caucus have at least given him the benefit of the doubt.

Labour MPs have managed to refrain from public shows of delight or vengeance.

There is little point kicking a man once he's on his way out and the MPs are still basking in the tsunami of endorphins induced by Cunliffe's decision.

Even the Prime Minister managed to blurt out a compliment about Cunliffe's talent.

National MP Judith Collins was less willing to gloss over Cunliffe's record, saying her 2014 description of Cunliffe as "a moron" was still "pretty much" accurate.

Then again, Cunliffe had two strikes against Collins. The first was after Cunliffe was asked if he ever pondered who he would procreate with if the world blew up while he was on a plane.

Cunliffe replied "I have thought that if Judith Collins was the last woman on Earth, the species would probably become extinct."

The second strike was when Cunliffe referred to Collins as a trout.

He ended up calling Collins to apologise for the first.

Cunliffe began his first day as leader announcing "Skipper's feeling good."

It took a while to reconcile himself to it, but ex-skipper is probably feeling pretty good as he prepares to leave too.

At least he can stop apologising now.

- NZ Herald

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