With three pretenders to see off and an active destabilisation campaign underway, Shearer's hold on the leadership looks precarious. Does he have one big push left in him? And if not, what happens next?Labour has long defined itself as the party of change and opportunity, and those concepts will be front of mind for many of the party's MPs while on recess.
With his leadership at the crossroads, David Shearer has – remarkably – gone on holiday. And we all know what happens when leaders go on holiday. 'When the cat's away...' and all that. The whispers can start to coalesce into a tactile conversation about the opportunity for change.
When Shearer returns he may have one last shot at convincing New Zealanders – and therefore his caucus – that he is a Prime Minister-in-waiting. Or perhaps by that time enough of his MPs will have crossed the mental rubicon needed to force the leadership issue. Perhaps he knows this and is figuring out his exit plan. Because given the new complexity of Labour's coup rules, it will matter how he reacts when (and it seems to be when, rather than if) the challenge comes.
What's looking increasingly clear is that the only things holding him in place have been a) marginally acceptable polling and b) the lack of consensus around who might replace him. If either of those things change, the shadow-boxing will be over. Shearer will either have to enter the ring against a direct challenger (or more) or negotiate a way out.
Already the polls have stagnated and the momentum started by NZ Power has ebbed. Shearer is rapidly running out of round in which to land some blows.
Watkins is being over-generous to Shearer here; there never was a poll bounce after the NZ Power announcement because the prospect of a nationalised power system was seen as simply an undermining of the Mighty River Power sale process. If anything, it hurt Labour more than it hurt the Greens. People expected this kind of economic lunacy from the party that advocated the printing of money, but not from a supposedly mainstream party such as Labour.
Watkins also fails to mention the rule change at Labour's 2012 conference. That, and the convoluted process for changing a leader is what is keeping Mr Shearer's position safe for the moment. But it is clear that a campaign of destabilisation is underway.
Political observers can now say pretty confidently that at least three of his colleagues think they could do the job better than him. And that's where Shearer's leadership looks at most risk. While he confidently (and with a little help) out-played David Cunliffe at last year's conference, I'm not convinced he can put out three fires at once. He had the numbers and a sense of hope then. But three fires suggests the numbers are moving away from him and splitting into other camps.
Those fires come in the form of Cunliffe, Andrew Little and his own deputy, Grant Robertson.
I can't seen anyone else in the frame at this stage, although Shane Jones remains an enigmatic repository of immense political talent. Sadly the best women for the job aren't in parliament – Helen Kelly or Laila Harre.
It's obvious that at least one of those camps is actively agitating for change this year. The series of destablising leaks in recent weeks can't be seen as anything other than tactical and co-ordinated. And the biggest concern for Shearer would be if they are coming from more than one camp.
We've seen TV political editors told Shearer has until spring at the latest. We've had the man-ban leak. And we've had 'the letter leak' to Duncan Garner.
While Garner has been hauled over the coals for his tweet that a coup was on, he's been clear that he had the story from at least two sources. A lot can change in several hours in parliament, and knowing Duncan I'm confident his information reflected "a truth" if not "the truth". He was a little more definitive than was wise, but the indications I have is that Labour MPs were rattled that day and leadership was very much the topic du jour. Garner's smoke certainly tells us there's fire – and as I've said, it's probably broken out in three places.
The destabilisation has continued this week. Shane Jones and Andrew Little have been in New Plymouth making soothing noises towards those who support off-shore oil exploration. That runs counter to Labour's support of the Greens' stance on deep sea drilling. And Grant Robertson has relished a few minutes in the limelight articulating Labour's position on several issues, whilst his leader to whom he is undyingly loyal (cue Tui billboard) rests up at some undisclosed location.
Change seems inevitable in the bitterly divided Labour caucus. And in reading Watkins' words, you could almost believe that he's nailing his colours to David Cunliffe's mast; he concludes:
The other thing Labour MPs, party members and affiliates will have to get their head around is that they don't have to like their boss. It seems too much store has been put in Shearer's likeability and that lesson must be learnt. I mean, who likes Kevin Rudd? We know many MPs didn't like Helen Clark. The more important questions are how's effective, who takes the party in the right direction and who can win.
But that all depends on what's happening now, during recess, and what happens when Shearer returns from his holiday and whether or not he has one last crack left in him.
When even avowed leftie commentators such as Tim Watkins recognise the inevitability of change, the writing seem to be on the wall for David Shearer.