Fifty-five per cent of Australian electors say John Howard should remain Prime Minister and contest this year’s election, but there is much less certainty over who his heir should be, according to a special Morgan Poll.

Forty per cent of all voters say Howard should retire before the election; a further 5% don’t know.

The Prime Minister continues to enjoy overwhelming support amongst Coalition voters. Eighty-three per cent of these say he should contest the next election. The issue of who should be the next Liberal leader, though, is far less clear.

Twenty-three per cent of those who said Howard should retire believe Peter Costello should lead the Coalition to the next election. Fifteen per cent back Malcolm Turnbull, 10% Alexander Downer, 7% Tony Abbott, 6% Brendan Nelson, 3% Kevin Andrews and 7% support someone else – while a high 29% can’t say.

The poll shows once again John Howard’s leadership and future will both be election issues. The Prime Minister is in a bind. He has said he will stay on, but all the recent polls seem to suggest that the Coalition will go backwards at the 2007 election.

Howard has set some awkward questions for voters and his party, whatever the outcome. He has even put his own marginal electorate of Bennelong at risk.

If the Liberals win the election and Howard holds Bennelong, everyone will want to know how long he will remain Prime Minister. If the Liberals lose but Howard holds his seat, he is bound to stand down as leader. Either way, many Bennelong voters will reason that if Howard is re-elected they will face a by-election. They may decide to save time and money and vote him out now.

The Liberals will have to face the issue of picking a new leader sooner rather than later and there appears to be no stand-out successor with broad voter appeal.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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