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And just like that there was a vacancy after all: Annette King makes way for Labour’s rising star

After the Mt Albert byelection and with Labour stuck in polling doldrums, the case for Jacinda Ardern’s elevation to the deputy leadership had become irresistible. But what happens when she overtakes Little in the preferred leader polling, wonders Toby Manhire

The politics gods’ simmering fury with the New Zealand Labour Party was evidenced again on the weekend, when the landslide byelection victory of Saturday night was greeted with a Sunday morning hangover full of speculation about the leadership. The cork had barely left the bottle before Jacinda Ardern’s big win in Mount Albert was being cited as cause for the jettisoning of deputy leader Annette King, with Andrew Little assailed by questions over whether he had the leadership cojones to make it happen.

“There is no vacancy,” was the clenched response from both Little and Ardern. But there is now. King, who will turn 70 before this year’s election, has this morning announced that she’ll stand down in September and relinquish the deputy role, while endorsing as her successor Ardern, who was three years old when King first entered parliament in 1984.

It’s quite a lurch in direction from her position on Monday, when she came out guns a’blazing, telling the Herald that she was a victim of ageism and had no intention of stepping down. “She even went a little bit Trump,” wrote Claire Trevett, “accusing media of having a vendetta against her.”

That reaction may have proved a large part of her undoing: it added a burst of oxygen to what had up to that point presented substantially as pundit-driven, filling the void of a deeply undramatic byelection aftermath.

And while the tenor of much the coverage may leave an impression that the deputy leader position is of colossal importance, when it mostly just isn’t, the arguments in favour of Ardern – who, remember, stood on a ticket with Grant Robertson, dubbed “Gracinda”, in the party leadership race after the last election – are overwhelming. She’ll be a constituency MP after the next election (King was going list only), she lives in Auckland, where Labour has to up its game considerably if it’s to get anywhere close to government in September. And while King seems to some extent cut from the same old Labour cloth as Little, Ardern is the face of the party’s younger, urban tribe.

Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern at Robertson’s leadership race launch in 2014. Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Perhaps as important as all that, however, is what it says about Andrew Little’s leadership.

King, whose contribution to a party she joined 45 years ago can hardly be overstated, felt the need to emphasise in her statement that “this is totally my decision”, and told media this morning that there was “no pressure to step aside” and “I can assure you there was no challenge … If I’d wanted to stay there I’d still be there”. But whatever the truth of that it will do Little no harm whatsoever to leave the impression that he has a ruthless streak after all.

Labour surely needed a gust of fresh air, six months out from the 2017 election campaign. Usual caveats about the haphazard nature of their polls notwithstanding, the Roy Morgan numbers published yesterday were grim, grim, grim – down one per cent to 26%, a whisker above their catastrophic result in the 2014 election. Whatever King’s popularity and proficiency in caucus, the case for change had become irresistible.

From February’s Colmar Brunton poll for TVNZ

The risk for Little, meanwhile, is that the elevation of Labour’s rising star might fuel conjecture about leadership challenges, whether from Ardern or in tandem with Robertson. For what it’s worth my guess is that she’s genuinely ambivalent, at best, about any future tilt for the top job. But whatever her appetite, there’s a more than decent chance that she could in the coming months overtake Little in the preferred leader polling, which would be hellishly embarrassing, at the very least. And should Labour flunk again in September, she will be expected by many to stick her hand up.

The caucus will now vote, on Tuesday next week, for a new deputy – and it’s pretty well inconceivable that they’ll do anything other than unanimously back a sole candidate, in the form of the recently elected member of parliament for Mt Albert. Mind you, given the party’s recent run, not to mention the wrath of the gods, nothing can be taken for granted.