By Patrick Gower
The battle for the Labour Party leadership went into overdrive today, with a showdown between David Shearer and his rival David Cunliffe, at the party's annual conference.
Mr Cunliffe said he was ready for MPs to vote as soon as possible to test Mr Shearer's popularity, and a fired up Mr Shearer fought for his job in front of the party faithful.
Mr Shearer has a simple dream.
“I'm focussed on leading Labour to victory in 2014,” he says.
But Mr Cunliffe is mounting what is effectively a leadership challenge, by refusing to endorse Mr Shearer again today.
“Until you do that, the race is on,” says Mr Cunliffe. “And I am not going to have the Labour Party's internal process dictated by you or anybody else.”
So Mr Cunliffe won't endorse, which is code for game on. Mr Cunliffe simply can't hide his ambition, and Mr Shearer made a coded attack of his own on that.
“We have to show New Zealanders we are more focussed on their ambitions than on our own,” says Mr Shearer.
Mr Cunliffe's power play has followed new rules that will see a leadership contest triggered if a minority 40 percent of Labour MPs refuse to endorse Mr Shearer in a February vote.
3 News contacted all 34 Labour MPs. The 40 percent trigger point is 14 MPs.
Fifteen are refusing to say, and therefore potentially in Camp Cunliffe. That would trigger it. Nineteen are believed to be in Camp Shearer. He needs to get to 21 to see off the challenge.
So it is incredibly close. It could go either way.
Mr Cunliffe is clearly confident. He wants the February vote held right now. And yes, of course he is refusing to endorse Mr Shearer.
“That is a matter for the caucus,” says Mr Cunliffe. “It doesn’t matter how many times you ask me that question, I am going to give you the very same answer.”
And Mr Shearer is refusing to say if he will take up the challenge of an early vote.
“We have some issues to deal with inside the Labour Party,” says Mr Shearer. “I will deal with those in my own time.”
Mr Shearer's speech centred on a new Labour policy called "KiwiBuild".
It has pledged to build 100,000 entry-level houses in a 10-year programme, costing $1.5 billion. They'll sell for about $300,000 each.
Today was Mr Shearer's strongest performance yet. Problem for him is Mr Cunliffe, and his clearly extensive support in the wider party completely hijacked the occasion. It’s difficult to know if Mr Shearer will stay leader or return to being member for Mount Albert.
So the conference from hell is over, but the battle to stay leader is only just beginning.