Is this the same Phil Goff who last year snuffed out Chris Carter's hopelessly quixotic mutiny with such consummate ease?

The sure-footedness displayed by the Labour leader in that case seems to have deserted him as he grapples with the downstream consequences of the police investigation into the sexual complaint laid against Darren Hughes.

Grizzles from within the Labour caucus about how badly the Hughes affair was being handled yesterday looked to have forced Goff to execute a rapid reversal of his position a day earlier.

Hughes was promptly sacked from Labour's shadow Cabinet little more than 24 hours after Goff had affirmed the MP would remain Labour's chief whip and education spokesman, at least for the time being.

Goff cited as reason the likelihood of the police inquiries taking longer than he had anticipated. Moreover, the allegations, rumour and innuendo now swirling around Hughes made it impossible for him to do his job.

Labour MPs were also noting Goff's obvious double standard in failing to strip Hughes of his responsibilities as soon as he was told of the investigation. Back in 2009, Goff criticised the Prime Minister for not ripping up Richard Worth's ministerial warrant immediately after learning of allegations of a sexual nature made against the then National MP.

Confronted with copies of his quotes, Goff admitted he had got that wrong. He had since learned some things about "the complexity of such situations".

Goff did not mention concern among his MPs that he and deputy leader Annette King had become clouded in their judgment through their friendship with Hughes. In contrast to disciplinary action taken by Goff against some MPs-those punished for misuse of ministerial credit cards being a prime example- Hughes was being treated far more kindly. In endeavouring to protect him, Goff and King were putting Labour's wider interests a poor second.

And there was still that nagging question Goff had not answered: why had he not stood Hughes down from his Opposition roles immediately after the MP told him two weeks ago that he was the subject of a police investigation.

One reason being cited is that a bald statement saying Hughes was under investigation would have provoked a media frenzy to find out exactly what had happened. Hughes' political career would have been destroyed in the process. That is because regardless of what did or did not happen at King's house, Hughes' judgment (or lack of it) is what matters in the unforgiving court of politics.

So Labour waited, half expecting calls from the media, half hoping the police inquiry would come to nothing before the media found out about it.

Things did not work out that way. However, Goff cannot be accused of being the person who flicked the off switch ending Hughes' parliamentary career.

Goff's reluctance to feed Hughes to the wolves is understandable. Loyalty is a two-way street in politics. The Labour "family" is in the main hugely protective of its members, unless they really go off the rails in the manner Chris Carter did.

It is easy, however, to deal to mavericks for whom the public has no sympathy. Things are much more difficult for a leader when someone as intensely loyal as Hughes runs into trouble. In the end, trying to save Hughes' political career without hurting the party looks well nigh impossible. Only one of them will emerge intact from all this - and it is not going to be Hughes.