Politics is a lot like cricket – and I don’t just mean the sledging and the façade of civility. The Liberal top order collapsed with the Labor onslaught of the last election, but faced with Rudd taking the new ball late in the day, rather than the Libs looking for a middle order rally with their Turnbulls and Bishops – they played it defensive and sent in The Nightwatchman; Brendan Nelson strode to the wicket.

The problem here is that while Labor are playing a modern version of bodyline and pounding the Nightwatchman into a bloody pulp in the process, the batsmen next in line to occupy the leadership crease seem more than happy to keep Nelson out there, absorbing the political missiles Rudd keeps bowling and they refuse to retire him hurt until he has softened that new ball up just that little bit more – but it’s also at the expense of the score.

Preferably the nightwatchman would be softening the ball up by using his bat –a bit of defensive policy work here and there with the occasional cover drive past Wayne Swan and Peter Garrett to the boundary. But after today’s Newspoll, it looks like Nelson’s been padding up to the bouncers without his helmet on.

The headline two party preferred result comes in at a thumping 63/37 to Labor off the back of primaries running 51/31 the same way. As with the previous Newspoll, it is the Preferred Prime Minister rating that really does the damage with Nelson slipping a statistically significant 2% points down to a new record low of 7%.

While Newspoll states that the maximum sampling error in this poll is 3%, when you get results that are far removed from a 50/50 poll split, the sampling error reduces substantially, to the point where the margin of error on Nelsons preferred PM rating is around the 1.5% mark.

With preferred PM ratings this low, it’s pretty clear that Nelson’s leadership is becoming a limiting factor in the Coalition’s level of electoral support – his only saving grace is that the number of uncommitted responses in the survey are still quite high, with 20% being uncommitted on preferred PM and 33% still unable to decide whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with his performance.

One expects to see satisfaction and performance dynamics like this when the Opposition leader is failing to cut through and be noticed (think Simon Crean), but with the Coalition primary vote being so disastrous, where 1 in 4 Coalition voters at the last election have now abandoned the conservatives, it also has the whiff about it that when Nelson does cut through – the electorate doesn’t particularly like what it sees.

This doesn’t look like a sustainable political position for the Coalition to be in with a bag full of by-elections coming up. But would the Liberal Party risk exposing their other leadership contenders too early to the Labor onslaught by pulling the plug on Nelson soon – or are the leadership aspirants just content that it’s the hapless nightwatchman and not they whom are taking the shine off Labor’s new ball?

The possible upcoming by-elections of Mayo, Higgins, Gippsland and Lyne could well be decided by what happens next.

Peter Fray

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