Is it me? asked John Howard of Cabinet colleagues.
According to the version leaked to journalists, no minister leaned forward to answer “yes” to the Prime Minister’s musings about whether he was to blame for Coalition’s low standing in the opinion polls.
“Not me but we then” is what John Howard must have concluded from the response. Certainly no-one present was prepared to suggest that another leader would have a better chance of success. The Coalition Cabinet does not contain some sure-fire vote winner and the members know it.
All they have in the wings is Peter Costello and the same pollsters pointing to a humiliating defeat later this year say that the Treasurer would do worse than Mr Howard.
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It certainly would be easy to argue the case that Mr Costello is every bit as responsible for the current Labor advantage as his leader. The Government re-election campaign is based around a record of solid economic achievement and for 11 years economic management has been portrayed as a Howard-Costello double act.
If there is resentment among the Howard battlers that they are not getting a fair share of the vaunted prosperity, as Mr Howard seemed to be acknowledging yesterday, substituting one half of the double act for the other will not change the sentiment.
As more and more references are made to Mr Howard’s age it is quite likely that some voters – perhaps a substantial proportion – believe this time that a vote for Howard really is a vote for Costello. And it’s quite likely that the lower poll support for the Liberals is partly a result of that belief.
Before the last election the Liberals cleverly found a form of words to negate Labor claims that people were being asked to elect a lame duck Prime Minister. Three years on and it’s a different story. With every little memory lapse, every little sign of ageing, it becomes less plausible that the formula of saying “I will stay leader as long as my party wants me to” really means that Mr Howard might actually serve for a full three-year term if re-elected. As this election day gets closer the suggestion that a vote for Howard is a vote for Costello will get stronger.
In this circumstance a pragmatic member of Cabinet would perhaps have the courage to say that the Government would be better served by having Mr Costello as the real leader rather than the de facto one.
A report in The Age this morning claims that there are now backbenchers in that category, albeit ones without the conviction to put their names to the leadership speculation. Perhaps their courage will grow as they spend the remaining weeks campaigning in their electorates before Parliament returns to Canberra. Nothing is better designed to provide strength to politicians than a message from their own constituents that they are about to lose their seat. This winter break could not have come at a worse time for Howard supporters, coinciding as it has with a succession of unfavourable opinion poll results.
It is never too late to change the leader as veteran backbencher Wilson Tuckey keeps reminding his Liberal colleagues, but finding the replacement remains the problem. If it is the old guard that is currently being rejected then finding a potential winner means choosing someone comparatively inexperienced, like Malcolm Turnbull.
That would be a risky strategy in some ways, but trying to find long-shot winners is by definition risky. It gets down to Government MPs in marginal seats (and the current polls suggest that there are many in that category) deciding whether a risky course with an outside chance of keeping access to the white car is better than the safe option which provides no chance of staying in office.
I doubt that we have read the last leadership speculation story.