By Peter Wilson, NZN Political Writer
Labour leader David Shearer has won a unanimous vote of confidence from his MPs but the strife caused by his rival David Cunliffe could resurface in February.
Mr Shearer on Tuesday stripped Mr Cunliffe of his portfolios and banished him to the back bench bench for refusing to endorse his leadership and persistently undermining his position.
Mr Cunliffe's backers, thought to number fewer than 10 in the 34-member caucus, didn't show their hand and there were no dissenters when the confidence vote was taken.
The demoted MP said before the meeting he would vote for Mr Shearer, but his loyalty didn't extend to the next leadership review which party rules say must take place in February.
Some MPs questioned ahead of the meeting also refused to commit themselves to Mr Shearer next year, which has opened speculation Mr Cunliffe will use the summer recess to regroup and challenge in February.
He stood against Mr Shearer and lost when the leadership changed in December 2011, but caucus divisions have festered ever since.
To trigger a leadership vote in February Mr Cunliffe will have to muster 40 percent of the caucus votes - 14 MPs including himself - and that seems unlikely after Tuesday's show of support for Mr Shearer.
But if he is successful, the leadership vote will be held under new rules which give members and affiliated unions a say - sections of the party where Mr Cunliffe has more support than he does in caucus.
Mr Cunliffe avoided media when he left the meeting and on Tuesday night had still not reacted to his punishment or revealed his intentions.
He was Labour's fifth-ranked MP, holding the important economic development and associate finance portfolios.
Mr Shearer will name a replacement within a few days.
KEY WELCOMES LABOUR'S LEADERSHIP WOES
Labour's move to keep Shearer as leader is good news to Prime Minister John Key.
Mr Key, who is in Cambodia for the East Asia Summit, told media the debacle was a blow for the already floundering Labour Party.
"They are in a war which has now broken out into the public domain," he said.
"They fundamentally do not like each other, they fundamentally do not trust each other and this is only round one of a 14-round bout."
Mr Key added that uncertainty over Mr Shearer's leadership is "a long way from being over" and doubts that his rival - who has been relatively weak in the debating chamber - will still be Labour leader at the 2014 election, saying he "wouldn't bet the ranch on it".
Mr Key says the debacle means the public will see Labour as less stable than National.
"My caucus is unified behind me, we have solid coalition partners and we have a plan for New Zealand. They can't even organise a conference."
It was not yet clear if any of Mr Cunliffe's supporters within caucus would be sanctioned.
NZN / 3 News