Why Phil Goff is safe... and from whom

The Labour leader has shown his sincerity over the Hughes case, but was he wise? How safe is his leadership? And where oh where was the plan?

Tomorrow's meeting in Dunedin of the Labour front bench will be somewhat uncomfortable for leader Phil Goff, but his job isn't likely to be in jeopardy. His handling of the Darren Hughes case has got some MPs thinking, 'what was he thinking?', but others genuinely believe the party line that he was "damned if he did, damned if he didn't".

After Hughes let his leader know a few weeks ago that he was subject to a police complaint after a night out drinking, Goff had some hard choices to make, and many political commentators have been incredulous the path he chose. Most specifically, he chose to say nothing and await the certain publicity, rather than control the announcement himself. As Sir Don McKinnon said on Q+A yesterday, he chose to let the ball bounce, rather than take it on the full.

It seems Goff was influenced by legal advice, personal loyalty and his own ethical code. He knew it was inevitable that the news would come out – a police investigation in our tiny capital won't stay secret for long. So it wasn't a matter of a cover-up, but rather a belief that he shouldn't be the one to release the news, a concern not to interfere with the police's work and a pie-in-the-sky hope that they might dismiss the case quickly.

There's no doubting Goff was genuine; the question now is whether he was wise. I think not. Let's tick off each point.

The hope of protecting either Hughes or the complainant was a forlorn one. It was going to come out sooner or later, and the public response would have been the same, regardless of when. The complainant made a choice when speaking to police, and as young as he is, that choice was always going to bring with it a bucket load of public attention at some stage. As for Hughes, surely it would have been better for him to be open and confess to the complaint, rather than be seen as the secretive one. His reputation would have been better protected by an honest and early statement, rather than a delay. There's no reason that Goff had to release the news.

Would it have interfered with the police investigation? Of course not. Open justice is a cornerstone of our system. The police often undertake their work in the full glare of media attention; this would have been challenging, but hardly beyond the pale. The rest is spin.

Loyalty? I suspect this tripped him up, well-intended as it may have been. As I've written, I think Hughes would have been better served by going public anyway. But the perception is that he chose friendship over stewardship. Surely the greater good is not a single career, but the health and integrity of his century-old party and the chance to enact after the next election the policies that party represents. Isn't that always a leader's first duty?

So politically, a daft decision. Or was it? While those who follow politics closely have passed judgment, the voters are yet to show their hand. And voters are people with wayward mates and troubled siblings, not political strategists. Many may be sympathetic to Goff's loyalty to a friend and his sincerity under pressure.

And if Hughes is cleared, Goff may be seen in an even better light.

As McKinnon said, there's a risk in letting the ball bounce. But sometimes the ball sits up and falls straight into your hands. We won't know how the ball has bounced until the next polls, and that's where Goff's future could be decided.

Labour has been steadily polling in the early 30s for much of this term, which is not a terrible platform from which to launch an election campaign, and at least suggests something short of the rout Bill English led National to in 2002. There's no pattern of gaffes from Goff. So the only reason to roll him is if that steady platform starts to crumble.

But even then, his departure is far from certain. A leadership coup would only make Labour's task of forming a government later this year more difficult, perhaps even impossible. And who has the numbers?

Annette King may have been able to harness support a couple of weeks ago, but the Hughes case tarnishes her as much as Goff. And anyway, she's not going to stab her old chum in the back.

David Cunliffe doesn't have the support across caucus (not yet, at least), David Parker is probably seen as too donnish, and a seemingly endless recession is simply the wrong time for the identity politics that would go along with the appointment of Maryann Street or Grant Robertson, regardless of ability. I've never seen Trevor Mallard as a leader, and I don't think the public does either. And if Shane Jones ever decides to make a move, it certainly won't be this term as his post-porn penance isn't done yet.

David Shearer attracted a lot of buzz as a potential leader over the weekend. It appealed inasmuch as Labour's next leader – whoever and whenever that may be – has to be perceived as fresh and transformational. But Shearer is hardly likely to betray Goff, an old boss who gift-wrapped Mt Albert for him and then last week slipped the Education portfolio in with the card as a bonus.

Let's not forget, John Key was seen as incredibly wet behind the ears when he became National's leader after just four years. Shearer hasn't even been in the House two years yet. No, such talk is fanciful for now.

So Goff is safe, at least in part because no clear challenger has yet to emerge. And even if one did, why look to take over now and head into almost certain defeat in November? Better to wait.

But even with his sincerity intact and his job safe, there are two questions Goff hasn't yet answered properly. First, why on earth did he not tell party president Andrew Little about the investigation? That's disrespectful and it clearly looks like a rift between them.

Second, where was the plan? Even accepting Goff's sincerity in his decision to not reveal Hughes' alleged indiscretion, why not have a firm course of action in place for when it ultimately comes out? At least then you can be seen to act swiftly and in the best interest of the party.

But no. Under Goff's leadership, Hughes went from leave on Wednesday, to stood down on Thursday, to resigned on Friday. That, to all eyes, is poor. Hughes should have been ready to resign his portfolios at least, the minute the news leaked.

The story is likely to survive another couple of days, until after the Dunedin meeting; then it will be in Labour's interest to show some discipline and shut it down.

Until the police investigation is complete, of course and it rises again.

Which leaves us with Hughes himself. While the talk has been of his leaders' loyalty to him, what hasn't been said as clearly is just how much he let his party down. He should have known better than to put himself in such a position.