Labour MP David Cunliffe returned from a five-week trip around Europe like some new-age Arnold Schwarzenegger, fizzing at the bung with his dimpled chin as smooth as a baby's bottom.

The freshly shaved chin set MPs humming the Jaws theme music under their breath.

Cunliffe had grown the beard last summer after losing the leadership contest to David Shearer.

It came to be viewed as a portent - Prime Minister John Key was among the augurs who studied the beard's progress as intently as the ancient Romans inspected bird entrails, before he intoned, Confucius-like, that Shearer should beware if Cunliffe came at him with naked chin.


After the Big Shave there were undoubtedly some in Labour hoping the effect would be akin to Samson's haircut. Unfortunately for them, the vigour of Cunliffe's reappearance instead suggested Alexander the Great's practice of shaving for battle - so the enemy would have nothing to grab while he plunged the knife in.

Criticisms of Cunliffe by some of his caucus colleagues whilst he was on his European travels reversed the usual order of things that prompts leadership speculation. In normal times, it is when the leader is overseas that trouble brews at mill. It is then the buzzards circle back at home, holding secret conventions and recruiting the wolf to do the deed as they prepare for a feast when the leader returns.

This time it was the wolf who was overseas and the leader was steadfastly in NZ on a one-man Travelling Salvation Show around the provinces, promising to soothe their troubled roads with the salve of tarmac.

There was another reversal of the normal order. It is usually criticism of the leader that causes trouble, while undermining the wannabe leader is tacitly encouraged. This time it was the reverse - in fact, Shearer's defence of Cunliffe was so impassioned that one began to suspect that even he believed Cunliffe should be the leader.

But a few MPs moaning about David Cunliffe is hardly news. It pops up on the political calendar with as regular monotony as Key's malapropisms, and there was no suggestion a leadership spill loomed.

But it was enough to send some party members into quite a tizz.

That deepened when Shearer used the example of a sickness beneficiary painting his roof to say he did not approve of benefit fraud.

As Rob Salmond sensibly pointed out on his Pundit blog, Shearer was under the rather contradictory double-pronged attack for being (a) too low in the polls and (b) saying something to appeal to the voters he needed in order to address problem (a).

Shearer is at a time in the cycle of a leader when everything is a political risk. He gets criticised simultaneously for ignoring the provinces and for going on a tour of the provinces.

Meanwhile, Key is still rolling along in the padded bliss of his zorb of popularity, untouched by the occasional rocks it bowls over.

National was remarkably restrained about it all, possibly because Key, who is not only PM but also holds the warrant for Minister of Jokes, was in the United States telling little white lies about what big news baseball was in New Zealand.

Labour had to look closer to home to find the real enemy for the destabilisation - and it was not the caucus Shearer so vigorously administered a spanking to this week. It was the party rank and file - and especially the lippy lot who take to social media.

In the olden days, ordinary members were seen but not heard. This is still largely true of National's members, who are too busy counting the blessings of power to bother with causing trouble.

Labour's, however, are as stroppy as a teething toddler. Dangerously, they also know how to use social media, meaning that conversations about the party's 'direction' once held behind closed doors are now out there for the world to see. That is all well and good - healthy even - when the topics are policy. It's not such a great look when the topic is whether someone other than the leader should be the leader. That's just messy.

Nor does it help that the members have been given a new toy - the ability to vote on the leadership. That toy is still sitting unopened in its box and the members appear to be crashing like a finely tuned thoroughbred at the starting gate to try it out.

Keep it up and the members may well get what they want, for Shearer will face a confidence vote next February. They may also regret it.

As for Cunliffe's beard, he says the real reason for shaving it off in Europe was that it was hot over there.