It was a sign of how worried Labour leader David Cunliffe was that he took the unusual step of cancelling his plans to spend yesterday in Auckland to return to Parliament where he could keep a close eye on his caucus, meet his front-bench MPs and try to halt speculation about his leadership.

Mr Cunliffe flew back to Wellington from Auckland yesterday morning in damage-control mode. He didn't bother pretending he'd always intended to be there, conceding he had cancelled a breakfast meeting with a West Auckland community group.

Instead, his day's work was to show he was not under threat after another dire poll result and revelations about his 2003 letter on behalf of Donghua Liu, despite denying he played any party in Liu's residency.

He took the Shane Jones approach of fronting up, albeit with defiance, rather than contrition. He did media interview after media interview. Then, he met his front-bench MPs. By the time he fronted the media again, just before Parliament began at 2pm, he had his senior MP Grant Robertson beside him. Mr Robertson was the centre of speculation around Mr Cunliffe's leadership as the person most likely to take over if there was a challenge.


Mr Robertson watched as Mr Cunliffe was asked whether he had sought or received a pledge of loyalty from Mr Robertson that day. Mr Cunliffe said no to both, because they weren't needed.

Finally, Mr Robertson piped up "I'm right here". Mr Robertson was then offered the opportunity to pledge his loyalty then and there. He dutifully recited: "I am loyal to David Cunliffe."

The group hug done, Mr Cunliffe went into Parliament to try to turn the tables on National by claiming the release of the letter reeked of a hit job on him. He focused on comments by Prime Minister John Key, way over in Washington, that he had known about the letter weeks ago. Mr Cunliffe had only been told half an hour before its release to the Herald under the Official Information Act on Wednesday. The implication was that National had been snooping through Liu's immigration files and tipping off reporters.

It was a clear attempt to try to make the issue look like dirty tactics from National. Part of this involved the unusual tactic of giving National a free shot by asking Acting Prime Minister Bill English about the letter in Parliament. Mr English took the free shot, quipping Mr Cunliffe "seems to be riding flat out on his high horse straight to the pet food factory".

But it did work in part — it was National ministers answering questions by the end of the day and Mr Cunliffe still had his job.

Meanwhile in Washington, Mr Key was overheard quipping National had already taken out the only potential leader of the Opposition he was worried about.

He then called over that person: ambassador Shane Jones.

Cunliffe's day
8.30am: Arrives in Wellington "to be on hand" to deal with fallout of the Donghua Liu affair.

9.15am: Tells Radio NZ he has the support of his caucus.


11.30am: Holds a crisis meeting with his senior MPs.

1.40pm: Fronts to media with assurances he has the backing of his caucus and to accuse the Government of running a dirty tricks campaign against him.

2pm: Front-foots the issue in Parliament with a series of questions to acting PM Bill English about what John Key knew about his Donghua Liu letter and when.

5pm: Tells the Herald: "People are starting to realise now that it's starting to look like a political beat-up."