It was a fascinating read on Saturday as Paul Kelly pieced together in The Weekend Australian the strange tensions within the Cabinet of John Howard in the couple of weeks before the formal start of this year’s election campaign. It is not often that the mental processes of lemmings are exposed in such detail.

The story is essentially simple. Back in October, with world leaders gathered in Sydney for the APEC Conference, John Howard realised his government would not win and that he would lose his own seat of Bennelong. The Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, his good and loyal friend, agreed. Mr Downer went and talked with Cabinet members and found their assessment to be the same.

With Cabinet agreeing on the problem there remained the question of finding a solution.

All the talk by Mr Howard over many years that Treasurer Peter Costello was the heir apparent meant he was the only possible alternative leader. If Mr Costello was thrust forward at this last minute would the Coalition do better or worse?

The colleagues, when approached by Mr Downer with Mr Howard’s full knowledge, were somewhat divided about the answer but a majority seemed to agree with Mr Downer who Kelly quotes as telling Mr Howard “a change must at least give us a chance” and “perhaps we have to give Costello the opportunity”.

This is the point where our simple story gets a little harder to understand. Mr Howard was apparently only prepared to step down if formally instructed by his Cabinet colleagues to do so. Howard, wrote Kelly, told Downer:

If my senior cabinet colleagues publicly own a request for my resignation, then I will resign. In this situation I won’t put the party through a leadership ballot. But it needs to be understood that I won’t resign in a voluntary decision. I am not prepared to walk away of my own accord. That would be an act of cowardice and it would be seen as an act of cowardice.

What the colleagues were saying privately they were not prepared to say publicly. Perhaps they feared that a public call for a Howard resignation would not result in a resignation at all and that a bad situation would simply become worse. Why Mr Howard was not prepared to make the public declaration that his Cabinet colleagues had asked him to go as he handed over to Peter Costello was not made clear to me in Paul Kelly’s article.

So it was that the Coalition all went over the cliff together never to know if their fate would have been different if they were following Costello rather than Howard.