By Patrick Gower
David Shearer's leadership of the Labour Party is under threat from his rival David Cunliffe.
The challenge emerged today at the Labour Party conference on the eve of what was meant to be a major speech for Mr Shearer.
Mr Cunliffe is putting his hand up, refusing to rule out a challenge to Mr Shearer when the Labour leadership comes up for grabs in February.
“This is a constitutional conference, not a leadership conference,” says Mr Cunliffe. “That is not a matter at hand in this meeting.”
The Labour Party faithful voted today to change the way the leadership is decided. In the past it's needed a majority of MPs. Now if 40 percent of MPs, a minority, want a change, that will trigger a leadership contest.
The minority trigger was opposed by some of Labour's senior MPs as a recipe for instability.
“Let’s name what some people are concerned about here, and it is contemporary anxiety about leadership,” says Labour MP Andrew Little.
And yes, that was an admission – Mr Shearer's leadership is being openly questioned.
“[I have] got to acknowledge that's how some people are feeling,” says Mr Little. “But that's not a reason to put in a rule change that will cause instability.”
But the trigger got voted in. It makes Mr Cunliffe's job a lot easier.
He now only needs 14 MPs of Labour's 34 on his side to trigger a contest.
So while Mr Shearer deliberately didn't take part in the vote, citing a conflict of interests, Mr Cunliffe was front and centre. He made sure he voted for the system that favoured him.
And it was oh so close – 264 votes to 237.
And within seconds, Mr Cunliffe was refusing to rule out what is effectively a leadership challenge when the first chance comes up automatically in February.
All he says is “that's not a matter for this conference”.
As of today the leader will be decided by this formula: who the MPs want counts for 40 percent, who the party members want, 40 percent, and who the unions want, 20 percent.
This new formula is also believed to favour Mr Cunliffe, so the pressure on Mr Shearer from Mr Cunliffe is now incredibly intense.
“I am confident I will be leader in 2014,” says Mr Shearer. “Read my lips. Come February, come 2014, I will be leader. Nothing is going to change.”
Mr Shearer is left refusing to say how he will deal with Mr Cunliffe for his disloyalty, and facing the reality that it may yet be Mr Cunliffe who deals to him.