Election and leadership speculation. You can’t have one without the other.

Jason Koutsoukis’ Sunday Age yarn: “It’s not quite true. For Howard does have one rabbit he can pull out of his top hat: Peter Costello. Then Howard should make like Houdini and disappear”. And Sue Dunlevy’s “Labor has tried to use fear of a leadership handover against the Government in previous elections to no avail…But social researcher Hugh Mackay said he believed this time it bites” piece yesterday captured something of the mood at the moment.

It’s inchoate — sensed but not seen — but there.

Here’s just one scenario that’s got some credence in Canberra.

It says that Howard and Costello came to an agreement last year after Glenn Milne mishandled his poor man’s Kirribilli agreement story. Howard told Costello to sit tight, and promised that he’d hand over sometime in the new year.

Kevin Rudd has messed this all up. The PM has had to keep saying to Costello: “Not yet, I don’t want to look like I’m chicken. Wait ’til the polls turn.”

If this theory is correct, could we expect something this month or next?

John Howard must know he is likely to lose. He needs to go soon to keep his place as the only prime minister other than Menzies who knew when to go.

The scenarios have been workshopped up on the Hill. Howard goes, the Libs win, he’s a hero. Howard goes, the Libs lose, in 10 years all bar the wonks have forgotten the detail — and in the aftermath of the loss the Dancing Bears can claim that if he had stayed, he would have won.

Who succeeds him?

It’s Cossie in the short term. But people only see him as a short term measure.

If the Libs win this year under him, people say, they’ll only win narrowly. The government will drift onto the rocks. Kevin Rudd will sweep away the flotsam and jetsam at the following election and Costello will be gone. No one sees him as an opposition leader.

Rightly, too. Costello has only ever stood for his own career. Look at his “philosophy”. Back in the swinging seventies he played the social democrat. In the eighties, he was the new right firebrand of the Dollar Sweets case. In the nineties and this decade he’s lazily acquiesced to John Howard’s big taxing, big spending big government conservatism as he’s sat back enjoyed the dividends of Paul Keating’s economic reforms.

No one sees him as a long term proposition, particularly in opposition. Opposition leaders, especially in the early days of opposition, have to stand for something so their party can reunite.

That immediately knocks out another wannabe, that unequalled political wh-re Brendan Nelson.

Malcolm Turnbull displayed some subtlety of thought in Alaska last week, when he told the Japanese “We don’t desecrate your war dead when we find their midget submarines, so don’t you slaughter whales off our coasts”. Unfortunately, subtlety isn’t the strong point of defeated parties. What was clever in Alaska would get a frosty reception here.

More and more people are saying that Tony Abbott is their man. He tells it as it is — just as he did in his Sydney Institute speech last night when he said voters have almost insatiable demands of government. He stands for something. Even his opponents admit it. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott would let the Liberal Party clearly differentiate itself from a Rudd government.

And the deputy? Alexander Downer would like it. Snigger.

Joe Hockey could be a good counterpoint — moderate, intelligent, articulate, and like Abbott not afraid to have a go. It’s just a pity that they’re both middle-aged Micks from the North Shore.

Could it be Julie Bishop? Well, botoxed, blonded real estate agent lookalikes are a key constituency of the Liberal Party, but they don’t carry many marginals.

There’s gratuitous leadership speculation. Some of it’s worthwhile, but we also have to make sure it doesn’t get silly.

Peter Fray

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