Just what did the PM mean with his comments to the party room on Wednesday that having the “three most visible figures” in the Government in the same jobs for the past 11 and a bit years was “both a strength and a weakness”?
What did Wilson Tuckey mean with his comments, “Some people say you can’t do things late; well, Labor couldn’t have done it any later than they did with Bob Hawke”?
Tuckey, of course, has form. No true politics junkie will ever forget the 15 May 1989 Four Corners where he, John Moore and some of the other key conspirators in the successful coup that ended Howard’s first leadership of the Liberal Party boasted about their triumph. Indeed, it’s worth remembering the recipe for the coup that Tuckey — an idiot, but no fool — gave at the end of the program. “We had to win quietly,” he said, “with secrecy and certainty.”
John Howard’s leadership looks threatened at the moment. John Howard himself looks worse. The “annihilation” comments were bad. So were his remarks on Sky the following morning. And the vision of him saying them, when it was repeated on news broadcasts on the free-to-air channels that night, looked truly appalling. They all zoomed in on his face and cropped the picture to remove or at least minimise the Sky News watermark from their vision.
The big boys still seem to be ignoring it, but a couple of months ago, academic Judith Brett skewered Howard’s “I’ll remain leader for as long as my party wants me to” formula in The Monthly . As she said, there’s nothing humble in it. Instead, Howard has effectively dared his party to bring on a spill.
Will it ever happen? Probably not — but there’s so much leadership kite-flying around Canberra this week it looks like the national capital is hosting a festival of the winds.
Here are just some of the theories you can find being talked about in the corridors, down at Aussies or the Staff Caff or in the bars and restaurants of Kingston and Manuka.
The simplest says that the PM will go some time soon after Parliament rises for the winter recess on 21 June. He’ll have some excuse. Janette’s health. Whatever. He’s lied before. It doesn’t matter.
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Another says he’ll go to the election but (presuming he holds Bennelong) won’t hang round long, no matter what the outcome, and Peter Costello, uninspired and tired, will get the job. He’ll perform poorly and the Libs will lose the election after next. The party room will decide that they need a bit of blunt speaking and clear ideological differentiation and make Tony Abbott leader.
And a third — the most recent and most enticing — goes something like this.
It says that the Prime Minister has spent the past couple of days setting the scene — or, to use one of his favourite phrases, “making the case” — for his departure and the ascent of anybody other than Costello.
Look at his party room speech — the talk of annihilation and no rabbits to pull out of hats and his successful painting (under the guise of loyalty and admiration) of Costello and Downer right alongside him as the familiar old team and, therefore, part of the problem.
That sets the scene for a segue straight into a Turnbull/Nelson, Nelson/Turnbull leadership team — or something similar. Costello’s cut out and while the rug is also pulled out from under Downer’s feet, well, even he’s wised up to the fact that he’ll never be leader again, as he admitted on Australian Story .
The week before the Budget, Insiders did a cute comparison of the polls from budget time in 2001 and 2004 and how long it took for any bounce to appear.
And that’s when this theory starts to spill over into the first. If the polls stay poor, there can be a noble self-sacrifice “in the best interests of the party” and the installation of a new team to counteract Labor’s fresh face. And take the rap for losing the election.
Howard still retires undefeated.