Where have the events of the last few days
left the Liberals? This isn’t 1991. It’s not 1981. The
circumstances of the last two challenges to sitting prime ministers have been very
different.

John Howard is on top of his job – yet to
maintain that impression and to keep his colleagues settled, it’s handy to have
Peter Costello by his side. It’s in neither of their interests for Costello to
go to the backbench.

It’s now clear that Howard will not depart
under pressure. At the same time, there is nowhere for Costello to go.

The Treasurer has drawn a line in the sand
without having the numbers. He forgot that you never give an ultimatum unless
you can accept your opponent calling your bluff. He has been weakened. He looks
petulant.

Yet it is the prime minister who faces the
bigger choices. He can either continue in the job or go before next year’s
parliamentary sittings begin.

This choice may determine how he is viewed
by history. Staying on risks his entire legacy. Leave at the right time, and
his record is forever golden.

Peter Fray

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