John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Poisoned chalice may be leader's saviour

David Cunliffe.
David Cunliffe.

Forget the excuses, the memory lapses, the absence of records of correspondence and so on. At the end of the day, the furore over David Cunliffe's contact with controversial Chinese businessman Donghua Liu boils down to one simple question: Can Cunliffe be trusted?

Cunliffe insists he has not lied. But the subdued mood yesterday on the usually noisy Labour benches in Parliament spoke volumes as to what his colleagues really think when it comes to the likely damage their leader has caused to himself and the party - and so very close to an election.

Amid firm rumours that Grant Robertson "has the numbers" to roll Cunliffe, the latter's latest self-inflicted blow to his reputation and credibility may turn out to be the last straw for his caucus colleagues.

The facts are simple. Asked repeatedly at a press conference on Tuesday whether he had ever advocated for Liu in the latter's application for New Zealand residency, Cunliffe issued emphatic denial after emphatic denial.

It subsequently turns out that Cunliffe wrote a letter to the Immigration Service seeking a progress report on Liu's application.

Cunliffe says he has no recollection of writing it. That his office has no record of the letter. And, anyway, that the letter was of a kind that MPs write all the time for constituents.

However, the letter highlights Liu's intention to set up business in New Zealand and export "huge quantities" of agricultural and horticultural products to China.

If that is not advocating for residence to be granted, it strays perilously close to doing so.

In an ideal world, Cunliffe would have tendered his resignation as Labour's leader, at which point his colleagues would have expressed their confidence in him keeping his job and carrying on as normal.

That way Cunliffe would have been seen to have atoned somewhat for being found to have not told the real story about Liu.

The risk would have been that his fellow MPs accepted his resignation. If the polls get even worse for Labour, they may yet demand it.

Cunliffe may yet be saved by a couple of factors.

First, taking over the leadership just three months before the election could turn out to be a very poisoned chalice for Robertson.

Second, Cunliffe was the popular choice for leader of the wider membership and trade unions affiliated to the party.

Robertson knows that removing Cunliffe through a caucus majority alone - as allowed under Labour's emergency rules supposedly catering for the death of a leader close to an election - would destabilise the wider party and destroy what morale remains among Labour's activist base.

That is hardly the scenario a new leader would want to take into an election campaign.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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