Circumstances are getting out of John Howard’s control. Without some further dramatic developments his leadership options will be closed off. There simply will not be an alternative to him staying on if he really does want to put the interests of his party first.

After yesterday’s events Peter Costello looks too weak a man to convince Australians he can govern the country. A wimp who is all talk and no action will never win an election. A proven tough liar like Howard has in the past and can again.

The Treasurer has but a short time to show there is a reason for him to become Prime Minister apart from it being his turn. Some vague notion of generational change has to be fleshed out with the examples of why his government would be both different and better than Howard’s. Costello needs some convictions to be courageous about.

The electorate will take some convincing he has any while he sits in Cabinet like a sulky bully who has had his bluff called. His last chance is probably to quit the job and hope on the back bench that the polls turn shocking for the Government and he is called forth out of desperation.

There is no need for Howard to convince anybody about his political toughness. He showed that at his press conference yesterday when he did not make the slightest concession to the vanquished bully.

So complete was the demolition that he probably ruined any chance of Costello leading the Coalition to victory. If the people thought the Kim Beazley of old did not have the ticker for the job they will certainly regard the Costello we saw yesterday as lacking the required strength to govern effectively.

If Costello is no longer a potential winner, the Liberals have the problem of finding someone else who is. There had been no attempt to cultivate another successor because of a general acceptance that the job should be the Treasurer’s. If Costello thinks he needs more than a year to establish himself as Prime Minister, someone else would need longer.

Hence the likelihood that Howard will take the risk of defeat tarnishing his record and fight the next election as Prime Minister. By then he will only be 68 (his 67th birthday is on 26 July).

That’s young for politics. Ronald Reagan proved that when he won the US presidency for the first time aged 69.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey