Jacinda Ardern’s elevation to the deputy leadership position in Labour really shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s now a major part of Andrew Little’s repositioning of Labour.

It's now "The Andrew and Jacinda Show". Annette King's decision to step down from Labour's deputy leader position in favour of Jacinda Ardern is yet another major advance in Little's re-positioning of the party this year. And it's a very smart move.

Reactions to the news have, so far, been very positive. For example, Patrick Gower says the appointment "is the best leadership move I've seen Labour make. It is so good I actually thought it would never happen" - see: Deputy Jacinda is Labour's best move in years.

He congratulates the party on being bold: "Putting Ardern into the role with six months to go till a general election shows one thing: Labour wants to win. It is a ruthless move, just like the high list spot for Willie Jackson... and Greg O'Connor in Ohariu".

The new leadership combination also signals that Labour has been through major rejuvenation, and that the Helen Clarks days are finally over. The frontbench and leadership now looks entirely different from the last Labour government and more future-oriented. It now looks like an incoming Labour-led government would not have a single minister from that time.

Advertisement

And more importantly, the shift satisfies the needs of the "Auckland strategy" in which the party is focusing on the need to correct Labour's major weaknesses there.

Everyone is likely to look back on this transition as having been inevitable. It simply wasn't tenable to keep King in that position while Ardern's star was rising so fast. And Ardern's win of the Mt Albert by-election finally gave Little the moment to make the change. It meant that she could claim to have some sort of "mandate" for promotion and seniority.

By all accounts King has been an excellent deputy in terms of a backroom manager of the caucus for Little. That was a role especially required during Little's initial years as leader, but less so now. Little's command of the caucus is fairly solid, and the divisions in the party have been somewhat ironed out - or at least mostly suppressed.

As I noted in my column on Monday, in an election year parties need campaigners and communicators leading parties, and King didn't excel at these roles in the same way that Ardern might - see: How long can it be before Labour elevate Jacinda Ardern to deputy?. See also Friday's column, A boring but important Mt Albert by-election.

Little's smart leadership

There should be no doubt that Andrew Little was very keen for Ardern to become his deputy - even if he publicly said otherwise over the last few days, denying any change was afoot. Seasoned politics watchers would have known not to take the politician at his word on this, as a party leader obviously has to express full confidence in their deputy right up until the time that they depart. To do otherwise would be to send a very clear signal of division and allow the momentum of the change to be lost to other forces. And if you look back on Little's carefully worded statements they were always designed to allow the change - the main line he pushed was that "there is no vacancy" to fill.

Little also had to carry out the change in way that was respectful to King. Saving face is important in politics and there will be plenty of positive public statements now made about her by Labour MPs - and indeed opponents.

Little's overseeing of the transition is also impressive because it appears to have been brought about without any factional fighting. Yes, King herself put up a fight to stay, but that didn't last long. Little and King are said to have had a conversation yesterday, where the decision was made. The transition has therefore occurred relatively quickly.

That the change has occurred so easily also indicates just how much the Labour caucus really want to win. This was never a case of deciding which MP would best perform the functions of the deputy leader, nor was it about merit. It was simply about which woman would best position Labour to win more support this year. And the answer was clearly Ardern.

King obviously took longer to see this than others. But she would have eventually been made aware that stepping down was in the best interests of the party. And being loyal, she has done exactly that.

Consequently, Little is now looking stronger as a leader and appears to be very determined. After all, this all comes in the wake of Little's increasingly successful implementation of the "broad church strategy" of bringing in Willie Jackson on the left and Greg O'Connor on the right of the party. Finally, Little looks like he's "cutting the crap".

Annette King leaving Parliament

In stepping down from the leadership role, King has surprised many in announcing that she will also retire from politics. Again, this should not be a shock. She's obviously leaving in part out of disappointment at her demotion, and she probably sees that there's little point in going back into Parliament now that her leadership time is over.

But also, King would be highly cognisant of her departure having some benefit for the party. The reality is that ex-leaders do their parties no good through hanging around. Therefore, it's actually been a major boost for Little's caucus having David Cunliffe, David Shearer, and Phil Goff leave Parliament over the last year. Former leaders tend to do more harm than good by staying, and their very existence distracts from the important message of renewal.

What will happen to King? Any political payoffs for stepping down are not yet clear. Obviously by leaving Parliament she isn't set to take up any ministerial offers but an incoming Labour-led government would undoubtedly use King's talents in some sort of appointment. This could range from her heading up some of the hundreds of quangos that the government of the day needs to fill. Or it could involve a high commissioners job overseas. Even the role of governor general could be in play eventually - certainly King will have the respect in Labour to warrant any number of positions and she is universally regarded as qualified enough to fill them. In fact a National-led government might well appoint her to senior roles in government administration.

What happens now?

There will obviously now be a minor reshuffle to take account of King's signalled departure, as well as the arrival of Raymond Huo into Parliament (as a result of Ardern's winning the by-election and moving from being a list MP to an electorate one).

King's Health portfolio will now be up for grabs. This will go to David Clark, who's currently the associate spokesperson for health, and who continues to rise up the ranks. It's less clear who will inherit her regional development portfolio, but as this would go to a coalition partner in a future government, it's less of a concern in Labour.

But watch for the next polling on preferred prime ministers. This could see Ardern starting to challenge or eventually surpass Little's popularity. And this, of course, brings a whole new problem for Labour.

This is discussed today by Tim Watkin, who says "perhaps the biggest risk to Labour is how 'the Ardern glow (TM)' bounces off her leader" - see: Deputy Ardern: What it really means for Labour.

Watkin asks how Labour will deal with the possible "problem" that Ardern's star keeps rising: "Just two weeks ago, the ONE News/Colmar Brunton poll had Little on seven percent in the preferred Prime Minister question, with Ardern on four percent. What if, come July, Ardern is on 15 percent and Little is still in single digits? How does Labour deal with Ardern's glow then, if Little is looking like a little dark cloud?"

He also raises the risk that Labour has taken on someone without the same level of competency as King: "It's almost become a truism within political circles, but the cry around Ardern is always, "but what has she done?". She's had almost a decade in the House and a string of high profile portfolio responsibilities - from police to vulnerable children and more - and it's a struggle to point to any impact she's had either on policy or public opinion in any. As one colleague said this morning, "but what does she stand for?". While the likes of Kelvin Davis and Phil Twyford have put their opposite numbers under pressure, Ardern seems to have left her opposing ministers largely unruffled".

Similarly, National's David Farrar points out Ardern's many former portfolios that she moved on from - see: Panicked Labour pushes King out.

Finally, for a satirical look at Ardern and her rising star, see: Cartoons about Jacinda Ardern and her rise to the top.