As expected, Peter Costello’s complete absence from this week’s shenanigans has sent Costellogists into a frenzy of speculation.

It’s fair to say that, despite the best efforts of News Ltd editors, the common view in the press gallery has been that Costello left politics the day after the 2007 election, it’s just that he hasn’t got around to checking out yet.

But that’s not to say senior Liberals haven’t been urging Costello to stay and lead them, and apparently that urging has ramped up considerably in recent weeks.

This will be immensely satisfying for Costello. They didn’t want him while Howard was around. Now they’re begging him. You couldn’t blame him if he had just the faintest trace of contempt for his colleagues, and not be in any hurry to halt their mendicancy. Let ‘em sweat, and grovel, and plead, while he suns himself on a Pacific beach.

His refusal of the World Gold Council job “revealed” by Seven last night is old news. He rejected that months ago. Sources say it was for two reasons — the move to London was out of the question given one of his kids is still at school in Melbourne, and because he didn’t think it was appropriate for a man of his standing. In short, he gave gold the finger.

Still, with the man’s hermitic silence, Costellogy is a tough gig these days, and we take what we can get.

The reasoning of the senior Liberals who want him back is straightforward — he’s their one shot at winning in 2010, no matter how improbable that is. Moreover, he’s more likely to stop them going backwards. If the Coalition loses more seats in 2010, it’s facing a decade in Opposition. Under Nelson, they’re going backwards at warp speed.

Costello brings two other things as well, although both have caveats. He would short-circuit the ongoing conservative-moderate/Nelson-Turnbull tension that will otherwise wrack the party until the election. The caveat is that Turnbull would still be there, and Turnbull wants to be Prime Minister more than Costello and Nelson combined.

He also comes with the cachet of better economic times, the sunny uplands of the early years of the resources boom. The caveat is that Labor has succeeded in painting those years as ones of missed opportunities.

However, even with the publication date of his book being brought forward a couple of weeks, that still leaves us — and, more acutely, his party — with six weeks of agonising. After his efforts this week — including a truly savage mauling on The 7.30 Report — Nelson’s no longer in the tumbrel, he’s in the guillotine and they’re raising the blade. How long will we have to hold our breath waiting for it to drop? Pete only knows.

Unless Malcolm Turnbull takes his fate into his own hands. Sitting back and watching the Costello speculation must be exquisitely painful for Turnbull, cruelled of the leadership by the Right last November, forced to watch as Nelson has stumbled about the place ever since. If he initiated a spill now, it would at least flush Costello out, demanding he make a decision on Turnbull’s timetable, not his own. On previous form, Costello would beg off. If he joined the contest, it would be the end of Turnbull’s ambitions until 2011, but that would have happened anyway.

Or Turnbull could sit back like the rest of us and wait for Hamlet Prince of Malvern to make a decision, then make his move if Costello bails out.

But Turnbull is the sort of bloke who likes the initiative. And it would put an end to the agonising suspense of waiting for the blade to drop.

 CANBERRA CALLING

Crikey Editor Jonathan Green and Crikey’s Canberra correspondent Bernard Keane talk the day’s events in the national capital.

Visit the podcast page on our website at 4pm AEST to download or listen.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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