Albeit briefly, John Key lost the plot in Parliament yesterday. The Prime Minister could not remember the question Labour's David Cunliffe had asked him moments earlier. When Key recalled the relevant portfolio - "something to do with labour" - he started talking about completely different legislation to that to which Cunliffe had referred.

The Prime Minister has not lost his marbles. He was - in his words - having "just too much fun" at Labour's expense to worry about the subject matter of the questions.

Before going to the House, Key would have noted the three aspirants for the Labour leadership had each been given a question and accompanying follow-ups to put to a minister of their choice.

Two of the contenders, Cunliffe and Grant Robertson, took the only realistic option - targeting Key.

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Shane Jones, Labour's spokesman on regional development, chose Steven Joyce, whose responsibilities include promoting economic growth in the regions.

With his mind loaded with jokes, Key had one objective - to show who is the boss regardless of who becomes Labour's next leader.

Robertson focused on National's unemployment record. Key's best rejoinder came when "contestant No1" - as Key labelled him - asked Key how many New Zealanders were out of work.

Key replied by saying the labour market was very fluid. "Last week one person lost his job. Now there are three people looking for it," he said to hoots of laughter from colleagues.

When Robertson had finished, National MPs held up scorecards giving him marks of 1 or 2 (presumably out of 10). Speaker David Carter quickly put a stop to it, but this was never going to be one of Parliament's more edifying afternoons. Indeed, Cunliffe's turn was greeted by National MPs waving their arms triumphantly above their heads in the same fashion as the New Lynn MP after confirming he was joining the race to be leader.

By this stage Key was unstoppable. When Cunliffe referred to National's legislation which will make it harder for trade unions to negotiate collective contracts, Key turned the question back on Cunliffe by noting the unions had a big say in who would become Labour's next leader.

Neither Robertson nor Cunliffe landed a hit on Key. But they held their ground.

Jones was a disappointment. He aimed some tame questions at Joyce, but gets a chance to redeem himself this afternoon when he and his fellow "contestants" can put another question to a minister. This time Jones must choose Key for his bid for his party's top job to remain credible.

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