POWER PLAY, with Jane Patterson

12:26 pm on 25 April 2014

Is Shane Jones' departure from Labour less damaging than the questions it prompts about the state of the party and its leadership?

"The timing is horrible, just horrible."

That reaction from a senior Labour MP pretty much sums up the reaction of many others to the news that the senior frontbencher and former Cabinet minister is to take up a position with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Mr Jones has been offered an ambassador level position helping Pacific Islands make more money from their fisheries.

Headhunted by Foreign Minister Murray McCully - well known for his rat cunning - Mr Jones' departure is as controversial as was his political career.

Despite in his own words being "blighted" by scandals over taxpayer-funded porn in hotel rooms and an Auditor-General inquiry into a decision he made as associate immigration minister in the former Labour-led government, Mr Jones had been mounting a convincing political comeback.

He shone during last year's leadership contest with his blunt statements and rousing rhetoric, although he was never a realistic contender.

In true dramatic fashion he launched a tirade in Parliament against the Countdown supermarket chain for anti-competitive behaviour, which has resulted in a Commerce Commission inquiry.

But privately he was becoming frustrated. Labour Party sources say he was despondent about the party's inability to gain traction in the polls and also the realisation that he was never likely to lead the party.

Mr Jones summed it up in his own inimitable way, likening himself to a dog who's now slipped a chafing collar.

While he had confided in some colleagues, to many in the Labour caucus the Mr Jones' decision came as a shock, especially given it came so close to an election.

Mr Jones' hand was forced to some degree as the party's list selection process was swinging into action, and if he had wanted to put his name forward he would have to have done so by the end of April.

His actions have been described on the one hand as noble and honourable, and on the other as knifing his colleagues in the back when they needed it least.

And that is made worse by the fact that Mr Jones has been lured away from Labour's election campaign by a political enemy - Mr McCully is no doubt still rubbing his hands with satisfaction.

Mr McCully and Prime Minister John Key have been at pains to appear gracious and well-meaning in public. But Mr Key couldn't resist one little dig at Labour, saying Mr Jones was a "welcome addition to the Government".

The catch-cry from Labour leader David Cunliffe has been that Mr Jones' departure is driven by purely personal reasons, but his exit raises inevitable questions about the party's fortunes and of Mr Cunliffe's performance as leader.

Mr Jones has been part of the caucus who believe Labour needs to woo back the blue collar New Zealander; the voter who used to be traditional Labour, but now supports National.

It reflects an ongoing tension within the party between keeping rainbow, union and women's interests happy, and appealing to a wide enough audience to beat National.

Mr Cunliffe's rhetoric has signalled he wants to move the party to the left, although that hasn't so far been matched by policy.

If such a leftward shift was marked by a lift in the polls, it may help to convince some of Labour's MPs it's a winning strategy.

On the other side of the House at least 12 National MPs have announced they won't be seeking re-election in September.

Despite the cries of 'Nats off a sinking ship' from Labour, the resignations are largely seen as MPs being realistic about their future - or lack thereof - in the party, and a chance to refresh the ranks.

If National was in the same position as Labour - struggling to engage with voters and enduring a string of leadership changes - it's likely the same questions being put to Labour and Mr Cunliffe would be asked of them.

Mr Jones will be replaced by former MP Kelvin Davis who is generally well-regarded and very much seen as coming from a similar mould as Mr Jones in that he is Maori, from Northland and a straight-shooter.

Many of his colleagues say that while Mr Jones has undoubted talents, it's of no benefit to the caucus or the party to have someone in their ranks whose heart just isn't in it.

But all agree, the timing could not be worse.