Even Guy Fawkes was not that stupid. Anyone secretly plotting a coup against his or her leader would hardly choose the environs of the MPs-only dining room in the parliamentary complex to count the numbers.

However, politicians are renowned for not always letting the facts get in the way of a good story. And the seeming possibility that David Cunliffe was holding a dinner on Tuesday night for about a dozen of his "disciples" - as National termed them - was more than a good story.

A group of National MPs witnessed the arrival of the "Messiah" in the dining room only for him to then disappear into a side-room "with conspiracy written all over his face". The plot thickened as other, apparently rather lost-looking Labour MPs turned up in Cunliffe's wake. The National contingent generously steered them in the right direction of Cunliffe's whereabouts.

"Labour can't even organise a proper coup without the help of National Party MPs," quipped National's Nick Smith during yesterday's general debate in Parliament.


Pity for National then that the said dinner was in fact held in honour of the visiting Helen Clark - not Cunliffe. Never mind. National MPs had by that stage had enough fun at Labour's expense.

Labour's leadership woes are the gift for National that keeps on giving. But it will only keep on giving for as long as National is careful not to disturb the unhappy equilibrium in the Labour camp which sees David Shearer keeping the leader's job in part because - in the words of National's Jonathan Coleman - Labour MPs cannot install someone in the top job whom they hate.

National's tactic was consequently to praise Shearer as a "decent man", while seeking to isolate Cunliffe from his colleagues by giving him undue attention knowing he would lap it up.

Cunliffe indeed seemed to be enjoying what was happening almost as much as his supposed National adversaries. He beamed like a toothpaste commercial while his colleagues grimaced like the occupants of a dentist's waiting room.