The Prime Minister touched back down in Canberra just a little before seven this morning – but all the leadership stories had taken wing long before. Last week was probably a flap, not that anyone has actually been brave enough to come out and admit it.

Still, the speculation of an imminent retirement has been diminishing all week. By Monday the story had turned into “How will Peter Costello do in the PM’s chair in Question Time”. On Tuesday we saw the write-ups. And that’s been about it – other than a nice reality check from Gerard Henderson.

“If Howard elects to canvass any retirement plan, he would most likely talk to his wife, Janette, and perhaps his children, and then some very senior members of the Prime Minister’s Office,” he wrote on Tuesday. “That’s about it.”

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Henderson likes to make the most of his time with Howard, but he has a sensible take on the whole affair:

Interviewed by George Megalogenis for his book The Longest Decade (Scribe, 2006), Howard acknowledged he’d been somewhat indecisive in his first term as Prime Minister. The same can be said about his time as treasurer in Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition government in the late 1970s and early 1980s and during his first period as Opposition leader in the late 1980s. Those days are over. Nowadays, Howard is quite decisive. However, he now tends to delay decisions until he actually has to make them.

If this is the correct representation of the Prime Minister’s mindset, then it is unlikely that he has finally made up his mind whether or not to step down sometime during the second half of the year. In which case there is not much point in the present speculation – which tends to centre, with some exceptions, on the view that he will stay on. If Howard does not really know what his intentions are – then, obviously, nobody knows.

And another interesting view came from London, from The Independent‘s media commentator Stephen Glover, on the beat-up that got leadership into overdrive:

In Britain Rupert Murdoch does not yet appoint prime ministers, but it seems that in Australia he has acquired that right. Last week he told an Australian journalist in America that it would be a good time for John Howard to retire, while he is “on top of his game”. Mr Howard is the 66-year-old Prime Minister of Australia, and Mr Murdoch has decided he should be succeeded by Peter Costello, who last week unveiled his 11th budget.

Mr Costello responded warmly to Mr Murdoch’s remarks. “He is an extraordinary, intelligent person,” he oozed of the media mogul. He added that Mr Murdoch “could well be Australia’s most successful businessman ever,” and described him as “a great Australian”. Mr Costello had perhaps forgotten that his patron is an American citizen…

Why do great politicians kow-tow to the media mogul? Obviously because he owns a lot of newspapers and television channels. Yet Murdoch is more a follower of political fashion than someone who seeks to shape it. Perhaps he understands the limits of his power better than many of his critics. He suggests that Mr Howard might go at the very time that the Australian Prime Minister is being ear-marked by others, and possibly himself, for retirement…

That’s a nice reality check. So we do we jump at leadership shadows? Because it’s a very, very easy story.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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