Morgan, McNair and Newspoll will be the next major players in the
Liberal leadership serial. The pollsters should all be out now seeking
to find how much worse a Coalition government led by Peter Costello
would do at an election against Kim Beazley’s Labor than a government
led by John Howard. The size of the gap between the Costello and Howard
answers will determine what chance there is of a leadership change.

If there’s too big a difference in
Howard’s favour, the prime minister would look an absolute hypocrite if he quit
given that for three years he has been saying he would stay for as long as his
party wanted him and it was in his party’s best interest. Retiring in a fashion
that looked like guaranteeing Labor victory at the next election would certainly
not be in the Liberal interest and would tarnish Howard’s decade of prime
ministerial achievement.

All the Howard talk and body
language this week suggests that early retirement is less and less on his mind.
For all his talk of understanding Peter Costello’s desire for the top job,
Howard would not be human if he did not resent the public pressure being put on
him. There would surely be some pleasure in now creating circumstances where
other Liberal colleagues have time to try and establish themselves as suitable
successors.

Malcolm Turnbull, for one, would agree
with that. His public backing this morning of Howard continuing in the job
should be seen against the background of knowing that, with another three years
of parliamentary experience, he would certainly be in the race for the top job
himself.

Peter Fray

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