Let’s assume for the moment that the coalition holds on to government (and it’s not at all beyond the bounds of possibility). Let’s also assume that John Howard holds Bennelong (less likely, but by no means impossible).
So, back in with a savagely reduced majority, and Howard committed to a handover of the leadership during the term: will it necessarily be Peter Costello?
Howard has always maintained that the leadership belongs to the party, and he is right: it’s not his to give. Is it not possible that the party might choose someone else other than Costello? Yes it is. (Readers will remember the cruel Anyone But Crean campaign waged within the Labor Party some years ago. The Liberal Party might just have its own ABC).
For a start, Costello is not widely liked (and they will remember the worm who turned at every mention of his name). A returned coalition would be looking very fearfully at 2010 with Labor poised for the kill. They will want a leader who can turn things around rather than just hang on.
Costello will almost certainly lose support with the expected reduction of the Liberal backbench at the poll, and the two newcomers in NSW safe seats would not be natural Costello supporters.
And even in the party room, would Howard urge a vote for Costello? Would he even vote for him himself?
Back in 1974 when Bob Askin retired as Liberal Premier of NSW, he had promised his vote to the long-serving deputy, Eric Willis. He apparently delivered on that, but also lobbied hard for his preferred candidate, Tom Lewis, who unexpectedly won. Is that a pattern for Howard?
If Malcolm Turnbull holds Wentworth he is a contender, but Tony Abbott, whose politics are as rough hewn as his looks, will not be. The oleaginous Brendan Nelson might fancy his chances, as also might Julie Bishop.
But who might the Howard favourite be? Could the man who stood aside to allow his return to the leadership all those years ago finally receive his dividend?
After all, this was the man Howard entrusted to sound out the numbers for him just before the election was called.
Alexander Downer might yet be Costello’s nemesis.