David Shearer's shortcomings as a politician were harshly exposed during his short time as the leader of the Labour Party. On one count, however, he cannot be criticised. He knew when the game was up. "It is time for someone else to take up the challenge of leader," he said yesterday as he quit after less than two years in the role. Even if, as he acknowledged, he no longer had the full confidence of his caucus, he could have struggled on for a few more months. His was a selfless gesture designed to give his successor adequate time to mount a robust challenge to National at next year's general election.
Given that he won the Labour leadership after just 30 months in Parliament, Mr Shearer was, himself, always going to need time. Time to lose his diffidence, to learn to speak more forcefully and coherently, and to convince New Zealanders that Labour represented a capable alternative to National. Time to develop policies which would reinforce that notion by differentiating his party from others. Only in the last respect did he come anywhere near to success.
The latest polls confirmed that, despite a series of Government mishaps, Labour has failed to make inroads and its leader's standing remains low. Disunity within Mr Shearer's own party gathered pace with his inept handling of the "man-ban" issue. Two further gaffes this week - the dead fish debacle and the Prime Minister's revelation of a private Beehive meeting to discuss the GCSB legislation - were of the final-straw variety. Such episodes spoke of a hamfistedness and naivety that Mr Shearer was never able to surmount. His failure to improve accentuated negative perceptions, and nothing that he did or said could shift the political landscape.
But to some degree, he was simply unlucky. Any government should find its second term much tougher going than its first. But National continues to be buoyed by John Key's ongoing if slowly ebbing popularity. The country shows only the early signs of tiring of him and his Administration. Mr Shearer possesses qualities that at another time might have gained him widespread support. He was not, however, to receive the time to benefit from the inevitable turning of the tide against the Government.
The country will not know Mr Shearer's successor for a month or so. That is a consequence of a change last year which dictates the votes of the party's members and caucus will each count for 40 per cent in any leadership vote, while the vote of affiliated unions will count for 20 per cent. The obvious candidates are the experienced David Cunliffe, who seems well placed to be the prime beneficiary of the new system, and the party deputy, Grant Robertson. Neither shapes as a readymade leader who will command attention in a way that Mr Shearer could not. Both also come with substantial drawbacks.
The problems with the new voting system are that it can throw up outfield candidates and, most pertinently, result in a leader who is unpopular in the caucus. Therein lies the danger of Mr Cunliffe. The public could also quickly weary of him, despite his obvious capabilities.
Mr Robertson, for his part, would be less polarising but has little in the way of public profile. He would have to tread much the same road as Mr Shearer.
Both men are unlikely to make many changes to the policies promulgated by Mr Shearer. But both entail clear perils. In the present political environment, the risk is that neither gains a great deal more traction than Mr Shearer. If so, Labour could be in the unfortunate position of wishing for another leader as the general election looms.