John Howard abandoned his normal formula for discussing the leadership this afternoon. No more talk of saying he will stay as long as it is in the best interests of the Liberal Party and as long as his party wants him to. Those questions, he told a press conference held jointly with the bemused visiting Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, were resolved last year.
It was not in the Party’s interest to revisit them. “I have never run from a fight before and I do not intend to do so now”, said the Australian Prime Minister as he turned his back on the press and strode back to his office.
This was the display of a man not interested in being gently tapped on the shoulder by a trusted colleague or two and told it was time to go. On display was a tough politician convinced he is the right man for the job who will need a majority of Liberal members to declare his time is up.
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Any further delegation will need to back their request for departure with signed statements of support. Anything less than that and Mr Howard will be daring his challengers to go through the formality of a challenge in the party room.
A public challenge is the last thing the Liberal Party needs. It will be hard enough for a united Government to win the coming election let alone one which appears divided over who should lead it. And no one knows that better than Mr Howard.
He went through the devastating period for Liberals when challenges between himself and Andrew Peacock seemed to go on ad infinitum. When Alexander Downer left his party battered into submission and desperately needing a new leader, Mr Howard would not put his name forward. He wanted the voluntary hand over of power that Sky News reported this morning that the same Mr Downer, accompanied by a Malcolm Turnbull fearful of being a parliamentary oncer, recently put to him.
Mr Downer back then reluctantly accepted that he indeed was not likely to be a winner and did step aside. The difference this time is that John Howard does not accept that the pollsters are correctly forecasting a result. He still believes he can win again and is more likely to do so than any alternative Liberal. Hence his determination to make his party prove that they no longer want him.
It will be a fascinating next 24 hours.