Today’s Crikey Morgan Poll shows how John Howard is facing a beautiful bind in Bennelong. Could he become the first prime minister since Stanley Bruce in 1929 to lose his seat? Should he have stayed so long in the top job? And what may happen when he finally goes?

Back in 2005, Malcolm Mackerras wrote in the Financial Review:

If Howard chooses to lead the Liberals in the 2007 campaign, he would do so in knowledge of the following possibilities.

First, he may win government narrowly while he wins Bennelong narrowly. Second, his government may win while he loses Bennelong. Third, he may lose both his government and his seat.

If the first event occurs, he would be in a dreadful situation. He could not hand over to Costello in the next term and resign his seat because a by-election loss might deprive the government of its majority.

If the second or third events occurred, he would be totally humiliated…

In the wake of the Crikey Morgan Poll, options two and three are looking more likely – but all of them leave the PM on the horns of dilemma. The ANU’s Norman Abjorensen updated the Mackerras thesis in The Canberra Times last week:

If Howard retains the seat and also government, presumably he would retire sometime in the ensuing term, but if he quits Parliament…will he hand over a seat to Labor? After all, this is the man who says he always puts the party first. This is made even more acute if the Howard Government in the next Parliament is in with a razor-thin margin or, as is possible, lacks a majority and relies on the votes of the two or three independents…

If he were re-elected, but not his Government, he would certainly be replaced as leader. Would he willingly endure the party room recriminations for a full parliamentary term? There is yet another scenario. Come mid-year and the polls are still looking dismal for the Coalition, will Howard call it a day then, explaining that he is handing over to a younger leader for the sake of the party?

Labor sources say that they believe Bennelong would fall to them if John Howard retires. That ups the pressure on the PM.

No wonder he’s fudged his future on radio this morning, telling Southern Cross Radio “My position on that is the same as it has been for years, and that is that I am in the hands of my party and I would like to do what is in their best interests.”

As for Peter Costello his supporters, the Crikey Morgan poll is good news. The Prime Minister’s approval ratings may have gone soft, but back in January special Morgan polling found a resounding 62% of voters nationally approved of the way the Treasurer is handling his job. Only 28% disapproved of his efforts and only 10% were unable to say. “Leadership is an important factor in deciding who swinging voters support,” Gary Morgan says.

Dollar Sweetie looks like leadership material.

Peter Fray

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