Oscar Wilde has his inimitable Lady Bracknell observe at one point in "The Importance of Being Earnest" that "ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone". Leadership is similar. The bloom stays till criticism is heard. Once audible, a leader seldom survives, even if the challenger is repelled for the moment. As soon as Simon Crean's critics in the Australian Labour Party challenged him in the middle of this year, his days were numbered, just as Bob Hawke's had been when Paul Keating did the same in 1991. Last week Mark Latham won the Australian Labour leadership over Kim Beasley 47-45. Beasley had had a turn and even if he'd won, he'd have been challenged again. New faces get longer in the sun.
Our political history is full of similar examples. When Bill Rowling survived 19-18 in a tense Labour caucus stand-off in December 1980 it was obvious he wouldn't last long. When there was a motion of no-confidence in David Lange at the end of June 1989 it mattered little that he survived narrowly. The writing was on the wall. He resigned six weeks later. In 1990 Geoffrey Palmer suffered the same fate when the Labour government's pre-election nerves toppled him in favour of Mike Moore. A general election defeat in 1993 saw Moore himself removed by new MPs who had been selected to support Helen Clark.
National has also had its share of coups. Between 1984 and early 1986 Jim McLay became the butt of endless rumours fired by a resentful Robert Muldoon. He had suffered at McLay's hands after National's disastrous performance in the 1984 election. Jim Bolger got more than eleven years as leader before his colleagues toppled him. Then Jenny Shipley, followed by Bill English, succumbed to inside intrigue. Murmurings amongst colleagues which reach the media are always followed by public skirmishings as the incumbent digs in. It's all part of a ritual dance. By the time the public campaign starts, it's too late. The bloom is irrecoverable. A leader's authority never survives a public mauling.
Winning and retaining leadership depends on several things. Control of the party apparatus is fundamental. Lange neither understood it, nor had any skill at it, but his oratorical skills helped for a while. Helen Clark controls the party with a rod of iron. By itself, however, that isn't enough. Leaders have to produce the goods. Politicians operate with one eye on the polls, or in the case of Ms Clark, two. Birds of prey whirl when the ratings decline. Most leaders who smell of roses while the polls are up, don't know how to position themselves when their bloom fades. Most, as was the case with Bill English and Britain's Iain Duncan Smith, mistook activity for direction. Step up the pace, seek more interviews and photo opportunities. Pump out the position papers. It didn't occur to them that the package with their brand on it was now unmarketable, the message, therefore, irrelevant.
Everywhere these days leadership has become more difficult to exert in opposition. An opposition leader's main difficulty is that prime ministers exercise extraordinary influence over the news. It's not that they bully the media, though most try a fair bit. They are in a position continually to set the political stage, to warm up this issue, cool down that; to control errant colleagues, or stage-manage diversions. John Howard switches the anti-migrant button on and off at will. Much harder to do from opposition, as Winston Peters is finding. Robert Muldoon was the last great practitioner of the destructive arts. That was 1974-5, and he was assisted by a collapse in New Zealand's terms of trade.
It's no accident that these days it is opposition leaders who are finding it difficult. Beasley and Crean in Australia; William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith in Britain; Jenny Shipley and Bill English here. Reasonably good economic conditions encourage peoples' never very latent economic hedonism. But constant threats of international terrorism incline voters to cling to strong incumbents who appear to know what they are doing. It's economic dissatisfaction and/or sudden crises that wake people. And they can't be generated from the opposition benches. Mark Latham, Britain's Michael Howard and Don Brash have their work cut out for them. Their bloom - and they each possess some - won't last long.