Federal Liberal frontbencher Joe Hockey has inflicted a damaging broadside on the NSW Coalition leader Barry O’Farrell following a wink-wink, nudge-nudge piece by News Ltd snake oil representative Glenn Milne in yesterday’s Sunday Tele.

Milne laid out the presumptuous scenario that Hockey would quit Canberra, move into state parliament, overthrow “Fatty O’Barrell” and capture the premiership at a Coalition election victory in 2011.

After 24 hours of return fire from the O’Farrell camp, a contrite Hockey went on ABC radio this morning to trot out the usual quotes for these situations: “Barry is doing a fantastic job .. I’m totally supporting Barry and his team … no intention of quitting the fight in Canberra … Brendan doing a fantastic job too … etc etc”

As one of O’Farrell’s supporters remarked: “Joe said he was standing right behind Barry. That, of course, is the perfect place from which to knife him in the back.”

The Hockey sidestep is not without a certain political symmetry. He is the NSW convenor of The Group, the party’s “wet” faction, he has strong factional backing in the state division and his Bunteresque joviality has resulted in a wide network of contacts in the corporate, sporting and media worlds. He has held the seat of North Sydney since 1996 and, if the sitting state MP for North Shore Jillian Skinner, stepped down, he could slip seamlessly into her electorate.

Born in Victoria, educated at Melbourne’s Presbyterian Ladies College and a former journalist on the old Melbourne Herald, Skinner has spent 14 years in parliament and had been tipped to retire before the next state election.

The inspired leak to Milne further highlights the hopeless disarray in the federal Liberal ranks following the devastating election defeat last November. Senior Howardistas like Peter Costello, Alexander Downer, Mark Vaile and Peter McGauran are running for the exits while others, like Hockey, are pondering future glory in their home states where the tide is turning against long-tenure Labor governments.

Despite less than impressive poll results, O’Farrell has made a significant impact with the public and the media since taking the leadership following the March 2007 state election loss.

He has pursued Premier Morris Iemma and his baleful ministerial crew with terrier-like determination and provided a colorful running commentary in the press and over the air waves.

What he hasn’t been able to do is settle the rabid right-wingers in his own ranks. They are utterly impervious to the state and federal election losses and don’t see any reason to change course, alter out-of-step policies or navigate towards the centre.

The Hockey speculation is a godsend to the embattled Iemma who has made internal divisions in the Coalition a point of continuous attack.

For O’Farrell the trouble is that the Hockey-for-premier story won’t go away. Labor will use it to destabilize the Coalition, the lazy media will pick it up every couple of months and run with it and, as so often happens with these things, they become self-fulfilling prophecies.