It’s odd that there appears to be no-one expressing the view that the PM intentionally set the dogs loose on Peter Costello. Let’s speculate. Howard has always thought of Costello as soft: a weak and lazy pollie who has never really had to fight for what he has (unlike one J W Howard). So he blows the dog whistle just in time to stuff up Costello’s 10th Budget and is easily able to stick with the “plausible denial” – only six months after an election, tired and emotional in Greece, and all that.

Costello and his camp are flustered and angry (all 15-20 of them), but true to form won’t challenge; the notion of a backbench stint is not one that sits well with Costello or his mates. Niggle, niggle, as time passes with Howard blowing off a few more whistles. Meanwhile back on the poopdeck, Horatio Nelson has been chatting with the sailors and some of the other non-coms about another future – his and theirs. The tension mounts, as always when soldiers and sailors (and pollies) sit around with expectations of battle, but no war to fight.

The solution is to start the war. If by year-end Howard has not given any indication of a “smooth transition”, the Costello troops will be very restless as they see their ship sailing off without them. The summer break gives plenty of time for fervent imaginations to foment the plans for challenge and succession.

But wait, both sides can play in this game without agreed rules. After the first Parliamentary sittings, and when a challenge seems inevitable, Howard announces he will be stepping down. The timing, after all, is up to him.

He also announces that as there has been continuing and untrammeled disloyalty and disruption over the past year he thinks that there should be a democratic process to choose a new leader. When questioned, Howard says he thinks that Cossie has been a great treasurer and deputy leader, but that for the good of the Party a ballot should be held and anyone who thinks they have something to offer should put their name forward in the contest.

Team Dollar Sweetie is well organised. They’ve even convinced Alexander Downer that deputy and treasurer under Capt’n Costello is the greatest reward he can extract from politics. But the Costello forces get a surprise when the numbers seem to be drifting and out of the mist comes a new team under Admiral Horatio Nelson. Nelson is joined by loyal midshipman Turnbull and a crew of ambitious midshipmen looking to create “Lord Nelson” and steer the good ship Victory into the Howard sunset.

The Liberals have their “smoothish” transition and generational change. Labor is gobsmacked. Frontbencher Warren Entsch this morning tried to calm the troops, reminding his colleagues: “There are no ministerial postions in opposition…” And Howard this morning told the joint party room meeting that the government would take a “mature and cautious approach” to policy once it gains control of the Senate on 1 July. But will that be enough to stop the dogs howling?

Peter Fray

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