“Prime Minister John Howard should consider his political future, before his colleagues make up his mind for him,” one of the PM’s biographers writes today.

And no. It’s not Van Errington. It’s David Barnett, in the Canberra Times.

“He has failed to turn around the catastrophic collapse of support for the Coalition that has occurred since Rudd became ALP leader last year,” Barnett says.

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It’s noteworthy as the first tap on the shoulder from a rusted-on Liberal and strong Howard supporter – certainly not one in the inner circle, but certainly a strong backer.

You can’t say all of Barnett’s critique is sound: “It’s possible to fault Howard. He failed to get the ABC under any sort of control,” Barnett writes.

Actually, very few of the voters now deserting Howard actually watch ABC Television or listen to ABC Radio. As a former prime ministerial press secretary, Barnett should know that the ABC’s audience tends to be more politically aware, the type of voters studies show tend to have fixed opinions and know which way they’re going to cast their ballot long before elections.

Barnett’s closing points are harder to argue with. Australia owes Howard a lot, he says, “but it doesn’t owe him the privilege of going down with the ship, of retiring to the shadows asserting that, in the end, the country wasn’t worthy of him… As Howard himself has said, to serve as prime minister is a great honour and privilege. He would serve it best now by stepping aside”.

Barnett says the Coalition must “ensure that it can survive defeat despite the factionalism into which the NSW party has descended.”

It’s hard to see who could fill Howard’s shoes before the election. It’s amply clear that Peter Costello is not a leader. He would have challenged if he was. If he had the balls to do the job, he would have got the job – or tried for it. And Barnett’s hopes for a factionalism-free future seem to be in vain, too.

The Prime Minister has stamped his character on the Liberal Party. The vast majority of the Liberal Party has let Howard do their thinking for them, in exchange for election wins.

It is like the Tories in the last days of Margaret Thatcher, but without a Heseltine or even a Julian Critchley. Howard has found it convenient to let the hard right increase its influence in the Liberal Party.

This is the legacy he will bequeath his successors.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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