While eyes were on the Labour Party and its troubles over the past fortnight, the Maori Party was more inconspicuously getting its own pasting.

And, as with Labour, many of those applying the paddle were its own supporters.

As the party's former MP, Hone Harawira, hit the road on a one-man travelling show to sell his new party and drum up support, the scent of defection wafted through the ranks.

Lawyer Annette Sykes appeared on Willie Jackson's Newsbites programme, calling party whip Te Ururoa Flavell a traitor for failing to stop Petrobras' mining exploration permit and reiterating her interest in standing against Mr Flavell for Harawira's new party.

One of the Maori Party's younger former candidates - Potaua Biasiny-Tule - wrote of his decision to withdraw his support to follow the Pied Piper of Te Tai Tokerau, despite making it clear he and Harawira had clashed when he worked for the politician.

Reports were also drifting back to the Maori Party about the message Harawira was giving at his meetings - it had sold its people down the river and become too timid, too beholden to the National Party and "corporate iwi".

Thus far, both sides are maintaining a facade that the agreement not to stand against each other holds.

Expect that to change next weekend.

Behind the scenes, the Maori Party has collated evidence of Harawira's criticisms of the party to use to pull the pin on its agreement with him, in which it pledged not to stand against him in his northern seat if he did not stand against its candidates.

Next week it will meet to analyse that report. The agreement's demise is inevitable - not least because it is abundantly clear that while Harawira might not want the party to stand against him, he and his supporters certainly want to be able to stand against the Maori Party MPs.

The Maori Party is expected to make its move on April 29 - the day before Harawira is to announce his party and new line-up. It will justify its decision by saying there was pressure from Maori Party supporters in Northland to give them someone to vote for.

In Te Tai Tokerau, that will undoubtedly result in a vote split between the Maori Party and Harawira.

The result could well be that Labour's candidate Kelvin Davis, who awaits this scenario with some glee, sweeps through the middle and takes the prize.

The Maori Party knows the risk of this. It could be the result it is hoping to force if it cannot take the seat itself.

If Davis wins the seat, Harawira does not. That may well be a sacrifice the Maori Party is willing to make - it is Harawira rather than Labour which is most corrosive to it.

A Harawira party without Harawira in Parliament is a far less dangerous prospect and if self-preservation means losing a limb, it may well be worth it.

It is hard to gauge support levels for Harawira, beyond his own possibly inflated claims and one Native Affairs-Baseline poll in March in which about one-third of Maori voters said they would support him.

Previous Maori polls even close to an election have not reflected the result. Harawira has strong support in his own electorate, but it is yet to be seen how much of this was because of his Maori Party backing.

The Maori vote is also notoriously fluid and unforgiving, as Labour and NZ First have discovered to their detriment.

But in the Maori seats, it is Labour voters who decide who wins. Last election Labour maintained its stranglehold on the party vote in the Maori seats, with about 50 per cent.

The Maori Party makes its living from the split vote - its candidates got just over half of their votes from people who gave their party vote to another party.

In the Maori seats, almost 40 per cent of those who voted for Labour gave their electorate vote to Maori Party candidates - 26,202 voters of the 69,172 Labour voters. In Harawira's electorate, nearly a third of his votes were from Labour voters and half from Maori Party voters.

Phil Goff's decision to rule out working with Harawira in a government may be enough to staunch any significant flow of the Labour/Maori Party split vote to Harawira.

But a meeting of the Maori Party's campaign group next week will also discuss how aggressively it should go for the party vote this year.

It will debate whether to stand at least a few candidates on the general roll this election, especially in seats with a large proportion of Maori and Pacific Island voters.

To keep five members in Parliament should it lose an electorate seat, it will need at least 30,000 votes more than the 56,000 it got last election, when it secured 2.4 per cent. The total pool of Maori voters is more than 420,000 - including about 180,000 on the general roll.

The party is still polling at about its 2008 level. But this time, the stars are in alignment. This election year, Labour is struggling in the polls leaving its votes ripe for the picking by another party with left wing policies.

Labour's plight is less marked in Maori polls, but is still apparent. There has been surprisingly high approval of the deal with National and - perhaps more pertinently - Maori have not warmed to Phil Goff.

Add to this the increased mana that comes with the ministerial positions held by Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia, and a significant lift in the party vote could be achieved if the Maori Party works for it.

The party is not blind to this opportunity - but despite its term in government, it has not capitalised on its influence by strong fundraising among wealthier iwi and businesses, many of whom must be watching with some unease the prospect of Harawira unseating the Maori Party.

So the battle against Harawira is its more immediate focus.

Thus far, it has feigned indifference to Harawira, hoping he spoke to the noisy minority rather than the quieter majority.

It is trusting its voters will see through his braggadocio and conclude the refusal of National and Labour to deal with him means a vote for Harawira will do little.

At the end of June, it will issue policy expected to focus on education, training to get single mothers back into well-paid work, and extending Whanau Ora.

It is hoping voters will see the list of gains, measure it against Harawira's and accept that the cost of the gains was also some losses.

The risk it faces is that Harawira and his supporters are getting wider traction than they believe.

Those believed to be helping Harawira include Willie Jackson, who has said he won't be a candidate, and Matt McCarten, both blessed with cunning.

Names of potential candidates are emerging - including Mereana Pitman in Ikaroa-Rawhiti, where the battle could be wide open if Parekura Horomia does not stand again.

Former Maori Party stalwart Angeline Greensill is also expected to stand for Harawira in the Waikato-Tainui seat after missing Maori Party selection for the third year running.

Shoots of self-defence have begun to emerge. Last week, Turia wrote a piece for Tu Mai magazine on "Life after Hone".

She said life was much the same as it was before Hone - the party was always bigger than any one individual. She reiterated her belief that it was essential to be part of a government, regardless of the hue of its main party, rather than railing from the sidelines.

It was a message to her readers not to be taken in by the shiny paint, smoking wheels and loud horn of the new car they were being shown.

Better to stick to the trusty, lower-maintenance Toyota Corolla that got you from A to B, albeit sometimes more slowly than you'd like.