By Patrick Gower
It has to be said: David Shearer had a shocker with his response on the ‘Nick Smith political favours scandal’.
Shearer fired a blank. Did he fire at all?
Shearer should have called for Smith's head to roll at his 12.30 press conference yesterday. But he didn’t.
I know the focus should be on Smith and John Key right now but screeds will be written on their conduct in the coming days and this has to be said.
The Labour leader doesn't want to play "gotcha" politics - but this was a "gotcha" moment he had to get.
In Shearer's own words, he doesn't wear his guns on the outside - but every now and then he is going to have to put a bullet in the gun.
Shearer should have said this: “It is a clear conflict. This is disgraceful conduct - and Nick Smith should be sacked.”
Instead he prevaricated, claiming he needed more information. He was too careful, he looked uncomfortable - he looked like he wasn't going with his instincts and didn't believe what he was saying. In short - he lacked gut instinct.
More than one journo said "what more do you need to know?"
Because it goes like this: the New Zealand Herald scoop had been dropped off to dairies around the country at about 5.43am.
Hours later Smith was forced into apologising to John Key - and that was by 10am.
And Smith's letter - on ministerial letterhead - "supporting" Pullar was public by 10.30am.
What more did Shearer need to know?
Labour newbie Andrew Little didn't need to know any more when he came down to the House at 2pm, and did everything but call for Smith to go. He almost got there.
Then Labour deputy leader turned battering ram Grant Robertson didn't need to know any more when he jumped up in the House and knocked Smith about big time in the snap debate.
Robertson used to run defence for Helen Clark when her ministers were facing similar scandals.
Then little Labour assassin Chris Hipkins chipped in with some knife work - he didn't need any more info either.
The Labour trio did everything but call for Smith to go - they couldn't betray Shearer.
But they looked strong on the issue and Shearer looked weak.
And of course Winston Peters didn't need any more information when he called for Smith to go during the Snap Debate.
By 4pm, even the kumbaya-singing-Greens were waffling on about Smith needing to be "stood down".
At that stage - clearly Shearer and his crew were sitting in his office thinking - "whoops" we need to go feral here - why were we so weak?
And at 5.43pm, Shearer finally woke from his slumber - and acted.
He rushed out a statement that was so carefully worded it looked more like something Nick Smith should be sending out.
It was based on one comment he let slip during the 12.30pm press conference where he seemed to be pushed into saying a Minister behaving like Nick Smith would not serve in a Cabinet he ran.
To my mind that was a statement which should have been ready to go 12 hours earlier at 5.43am when Adam Bennett's scoop in the Herald hit the headlines.
Shearer is trying to be different to Phil Goff.
There's some spin going around that Shearer not wading into this is part of this image.
Yes, Goff would have jumped right in on this and got into the gutter if need be.
And like I said, I've got a bit of time for Shearer's anti-politician image.
I am willing to go on record and say I was wrong when I was overly critical of Shearer not "playing the game" earlier in the year.
He doesn't have to be commenting on every issue, and he can say "happy Waitangi" if he likes - the punters love that kind of stuff.
But politics is politics.
Sometimes you have got to play the game.
Sometimes you have got to put a hit on.
And that means putting a bullet in the gun. And firing it.
Or someone else - one of the other Opposition leaders - will do the job.