It’s a long, cold winter in Canberra, and even though they turned the heating up in the Press Gallery last week, there’s little to keep hacks warm as they shiver, stamp their feet and wonder about when Spring — and the Spring sitting of Parliament — will come.

Naturally, talk turns to leadership. And thus, yesterday, would Brendan Nelson stand aside for Peter Costello? Well, of course he technically “refused to rule it out”, but for that matter he also refused to rule out flying to the moon. Like any leader worth his salt, he was having none of it. Nelson’s not much of a leader, but he’s not dopey enough to hang a “Free To Good Home” sign on his position.

As so often happens, however, Nelson’s word choice was unfortunate. The “bullet” with which Costello would return to the frontbench if he decided to remain in politics was presumably of the sort that used to accompany songs on the Top 40 charts, rather than of the lethal projectile variety.

The latter type of bullet would, of course, be needed for whomever Costello replaced on the frontbench, but I can’t really see the erstwhile Next Prime Minister of Australia doing time, say, as Aged Care spokesman, or offering the Opposition’s views on education issues. For one thing, the ribbing he’d cop from Labor MPs whenever he went to the Dispatch Box in Question Time would be merciless.

The immediate prompt for this renewed bout of media speculation is a few paras in Inside Kevin 07 by Christine Jackman (or, to give her her full name, Christine Jackman, Senior Writer For The Australian) which indicated that, had John Howard fallen on his cricket bat during his last term and made way for Peter Costello, it would have nullified the ALP’s key theme of new, younger leadership. This statement of the painfully obvious has given new hope to those — mainly in the more moderate sections of the Liberal Party and the press — who spent most of the past decade projecting their hopes onto Costello.

This was always one of the few positives Costello had in his favour — by hinting faintly that he was more moderate than Howard, he could hope to attract support from party progressives, without ever really showing his true colours. Those colours are still hidden, even after all this time. I remain struck by a recent observation from a senior Liberal that, despite knowing the man for decades, he still didn’t feel like he knew who Costello really was.

What Costello definitely was, however, was Treasurer for the entirety of the Howard era, and accordingly widely disliked by the electorate. Remember the Howard-Rudd debate? When Howard talked about his fantastic and experienced team, and mentioned Costello, the worm went down like it had been shot. That about summed up Australians’ view of Costello, especially after Howard formalised the handover deal with that bizarre and damaging agreement before the election.

Worse, Costello has really ramped up the Hamlet act since then. It was bad enough that he never made a leadership bid against Howard, even after declaring he would while p-ssed with journalists one night, but at least he could argue he knew he couldn’t win. But then he knocked the job back after the election. Most voters, even those who don’t pay any attention to politics, will have sensed his uncertainty. Does he want to be leader or not? If so, why would he let Nelson take eight months of sh-t and humiliation before stepping in?

What, in short, is his problem?

For all the talk that the prospect of a Prime Minister Costello was the stuff of Labor nightmares before November, Kevin Rudd and his team are unlikely to be losing any sleep over the ascension of Costello — finally — to the Liberal leadership.

In any event, it’s all media speculation feeding off itself. Costello will leave politics, just like he said after the election. His only goal at the moment is his book. Which, incidentally, is getting marvellous publicity from all this speculation. And all without Costello even opening his mouth.

The less you say, the more people can project onto you, and when you say nothing at all, they can project whatever they like.