The script written by John Howard envisages him holding his seat, the government winning the election and him standing aside some time thereafter in favour of Peter Costello, presumably retiring to the backbench as he has told his electorate that if re-elected he will stay the full term.
That script, if realised, would make history. Apart from Edmund Barton and Bob Menzies, none of the 25 prime ministers has voluntarily stepped down (and some will argue for Andrew Fisher on this score, but he was pushed).
Barton went to the High Court for another career and Menzies rode into the sunset to write mediocre memoirs.
James Scullin, PM 1929-31, stayed in parliament until 1949. Labor legend has it that he was the grey eminence to Curtin and Chifley, occupying as he did an office between them, but a member of Chifley’s cabinet, Nelson Lemon, told me shortly before he died that Scullin was more nuisance than anything else, filling in his days with intrigue and gossip.
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In recent times, former prime ministers have not hung around. Fraser, Hawke and Keating all quit parliament after losing the job while before them Gorton and McMahon stayed on, unwanted and unloved by anyone. None of this lot, of course, went voluntarily.
Howard is likely to cut a pathetic figure – but this is the price he will pay for scorning any need for an exit strategy.
Just assuming for a moment that his script is realised, what on earth will he do as a government backbencher? Attend to routine electorate correspondence? Sit on a committee or two? He will be a walking anachronism, a modern day Billy Hughes. Surely prime minister Peter Costello would have the good grace and courtesy to offer him a diplomatic post – or would he?
The last time Howard graced the backbench after being dumped as leader in 1989 he was offered some good money to write for the Australian, and it was both incisive and illuminating. This offer is unlikely to be repeated.
If he manages to hold his seat but his government loses the election, his very presence in the house will be a bonanza for the Rudd government. But, even worse, he will be a pariah to his own side – the man who lost government. Howard will be in political purgatory, scored off at will by Labor and scorned by his own erstwhile colleagues.
History shows the Liberals despise losers, and none more so than their own. Howard keeping his seat, giving up the prime ministership then retiring to the backbench to see out the term: its precedents in history and convention. Discuss.