Rats leaving a sinking ship is one thing – but when the rats in question are also the crew something real weird is going on.

A few weeks ago the Oz lamented in an editorial that the Howard government hadn’t done much in its ten years in power – the first major sign that the Murdoch deathstar was preparing to abandon him to his fate. In the last week other writers have added their voices to this line, with Greg Sheridan arguing that Howard had missed an opportunity to really take the culture war fight to the left – and as a consequence of Rudd’s likely election, the culture wars were now lost.

In response Christopher Pearson and Peter Coleman leapt into the fray – yet their defence of Howard was not that he had pushed through significant changes, but that the supposed bastions of “elite opinion” – the universities, the ABC – were unconquerable anyway. Hardly a ringing endorsement.

Presuming that this is what they really think and not just an attempt to round up a few Tory Labor voters, the debate indicates how muddled the right got by their own invention of the elites.

The notion that there was some monolithic mainstream bastion of social conservatism utterly divided from “the elites” on every issue was always wishful thinking. The sober and industrious holders of “Victorian values” that Margaret Thatcher sought to cultivate were a nostalgic fantasy. Sixty per cent of this mainstream had used soft drugs at some time in their life, with about a third having had a period of regular use. Seventy per cent of them supported abortion. With the exception of a couple of months in 2003, a majority always opposed the Iraq war. Porn is part of mainstream consumption, as are softcore s-xual services like lap-dancing. Divorce rates haven’t shifted for years. And so on.

The belief that endlessly banging the drum about culture war issues was making a real difference out there was what led the right to gravely overestimate the depth and solidity of Howard’s support – and to leave them gobsmacked when it crumbled over WorkChoices and a preferred alternative leader.

Howard understood some of this – he’s always been careful to quelch any move on abortion laws, etc – anything that would leave his left flank suddenly exposed. He understood that some US culture war imports – the political correctness stuff etc – would play well, but that others (overwhelmingly those grounded in religion) would be poison.

The conservatives on his right need the fantasy of a mainstream silenced by elites – a mainstream the right can then speak for. If they had been more reflective about the gap between themselves and such people, they might have seen Howard’s end looming sooner and taken evasive action.

Nevertheless, it looks like they will demand of him one final service – as scapegoat, for the irritating failure of the Australian people to fit into a Tory-ultramontane fantasy of who they really are.