Forget the
Latham raves, let’s look at leaders that matter. Subterranean spats
over the Liberal leadership have been breaking out into the open since
the Party’s federal council meeting on the weekend.

First there
was anger at the decision to let Foreign Minister Alexander Downer
introduce the prime minister at the swish council dinner on Saturday,
which was seen as an endorsement of his bid to be deputy leader and
treasurer under PM Costello.

But is that guaranteed? Dennis Shanahan had a well-briefed yarn in yesterday’s Australian that warned:

A smooth leadership transition from John Howard to Peter
Costello is under threat, with senior Liberals warning that the
treasurer could face a challenger to his claim to the top job.

cabinet members are questioning whether Mr Costello can continue to
hold the mantle of “heir apparent” if his supporters continue with
their “petulant behaviour”…

Leadership tensions are
logical for the Liberals at the moment. There’s talk the PM might walk
next year. Labor is a mess. It’s a good time for a transition.
Interestingly, Shanahan observed:

If there were a challenge to Mr Costello, the crucial votes
of the Howard supporters, a big majority within the parliamentary
party, could divide the Liberals and destroy the chance of a seamless
leadership transition.

Health Minister Tony Abbott, seen as a
close Howard supporter, has indicated he will not stand against Mr
Costello in the party room.

And Abbott came out
yesterday saying that “I’ve always made it very clear that there’s a
definite pecking order inside the Liberal Party: John Howard first,
Peter Costello second and then a whole lot of other people a long, long
way behind.”

The health minister has fallen from grace. Yes, he
neutralised health as an issue in the lead-up to last year’s election –
but only because the prime minister tossed him plenty of dosh. The
purse was then snapped shut on his fingers pretty damned hard with the
Medicare rebate backflip.

Brendan Nelson gave a seamless
presentation to the council on the weekend, but the politest way to
describe him is as a pretender.

There might be a simple reason for the backing Downer has received – and explanation that must count for a lot with the PM.

foreign minister, very unambiguously, has no Labor links. No past
flirtations or consummations. That makes him very different from the
other deputy wannabes – from Abbott and definitely from Nelson. And
even from the man who would be king, Peter Costello.

Peter Fray

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