No one could reasonably begrudge David Shearer about now were he to lean back on his chaise lounge, log on to his New York bank account and let out a sigh of relief. A text message might arrive on his phone, from Phil Goff, saying something like, "Show me the money!" The series of mishaps that have befallen their successor as Labour leader, David Cunliffe, the very man whose supporters made their own tenures difficult, bears out Helen Clark's observation that Leader of the Opposition is "the hardest job in politics". In the past fortnight, however, the unmistakable impression is that it is Cunliffe who is making it hard.

The bungled detail on the "baby bonus" policy. The backfiring remarks about John Key's Parnell home. The policy paper emailed by his office to a Government minister. And, far the most important, the admission that in breach of Labour's professed embracing of transparency, he employed a trust structure to enable anonymous donations to his leadership campaign. It's not long before discrete missteps start to look like a giant pratfall. The most recent revelation, of his late declaration of involvement in a financial trust, on its own amounts to almost nothing. But in a week like this, it sticks.

Worse still, it could hardly have been better choreographed to suit the National Party's soundtrack, an attack strategy which in essence obliges every Government MP to say several thousand times daily that David Cunliffe is "tricky". To even casual political observers, it's taking on the sound of fingernails on a blackboard, while foreign visitors are left puzzled by the incessant references to the Labour leader as a lorry driver. But it's proving remarkably effective.

In the general parliamentary debate on Wednesday afternoon, Cunliffe gave the strongest and most substantial speech. But no one paid much attention because, as Amy Adams said by way of introduction, "What a week for David Cunliffe!" And to the stock epithet of Tricky Dave, she added Shady Dave, Disloyal Dave, Dodgy Dave and Devious Dave. For all Adams' impressive use of alliteration, however, any of her Christchurch constituents listening would have waited in vain for any mention of the fact that much of their city was under water.


Part of the strength of Project Tricky is that it prods ceaselessly at a nerve within the Labour caucus itself. The persistent whispered complaint from Cunliffe's colleagues is that they still don't really know who he is. Is he for real, is he authentic? It's not an easy one to square and, paradoxically, the strident speeches of recent months have only added to that puzzlement. He has, at least, demonstrated a humility some of his colleagues claim not to have seen previously, in admitting errors and lapses of judgment in the past fortnight. It's just that there have been rather too many admissions, too many lapses.

The best way to win the backing of colleagues, of course, is straightforward. Comradely affection will climb in direct proportion to poll numbers. Cunliffe's urgent and probably irreconcilable dilemma, however, is that he needs a period of calm and consolidation, but he also needs to do something bold to turn it all around.

Perhaps the most telling slip by Cunliffe in recent weeks came in an interview last week in which he said that the Government was clearly going to change - "it's either going to change this time or next time". Gulp. He's scrambled since to emphasise that Labour is full-throttle for 2014 victory, but it nonetheless feeds a creeping sense that a number of people within his caucus have in large part given up, deliberately or not, on a Labour-led government in 2014.

It's easy to exaggerate the idea that Labour MPs are busy plotting defeat. But look at it another way: they would be mad not to be contemplating the state in which they'd be left in the event of defeat later this year. And it they don't, after all, grow the vote substantially from the 2011 nadir, any real rejuvenation would be impossible, because there would be hardly a new face in the caucus.

Cunliffe's team needs to persuade the dead wood of the Labour benches that their day is done, that they should embrace the many joys of retirement For The Sake Of The Party.

The political Grim Reaper has been stalking the blue halls of the Beehive, with 14 National MPs having left or signalled already that they will not seek re-election. Labour, by contrast, has had only one MP, Ross Robertson, announce retirement, leaving them facing a crisis of "bed blocking" - a term that was borrowed from hospital wards to describe the geriatric UK Conservative MPs who refused to budge during their long Opposition stint last decade.

Somehow, Cunliffe's team needs to persuade the dead wood of the Labour benches that their day is done, that they should embrace the many joys of retirement For The Sake Of The Party. And with a general election looking increasingly likely to take place in September, they haven't got long to do it.