If you believe everything you read, the Liberal Party is poised to forgive and forget 12 years of indolence, cowardice, arrogance and self-indulgence.

Not only that but it has decided that these are the very qualities that can propel it back into government. All Peter Costello has to do is nod his head, and the leadership is his. Such is the trust his colleagues now have in him that they will not even require him to spend a brief period in an iron lung, to check whether he would finally be prepared to work in one. It has taken just seven and a half months in opposition to turn Yellow Costello, the man who never was, into Peter the Great, conservative Messiah.

The proposition appears so unlikely that one’s first instinct is to dismiss it as fantasy, one of the alternative political realities indulged in by the political staff of The Australian. However, it is just possible that the Libs have hit the same level of desperation that persuaded them to offer Alexander Downer the leadership in 1994.

Certainly even his most dedicated supporter (Nick Minchin) seems to have given up on Brendan Nelson following the great climate change fiasco, but while the inevitability of Malcolm Turnbull is now accepted by all but the terminally naïve, there is still a powerful faction that is determined to delay it as long as possible. Another stopgap might make sense, given that it is still more than two years to the next election and statistics suggest that it is impossible for a first-up opposition leader to become prime minister and very difficult even for the second choice; the job normally turns over at least three times before it leads back to the treasury benches.

But none of the possible candidates seems willing to raise a hand, and in any case there are problems about all of them. Joe Hockey? Too casual. Julie Bishop? Too West Australian. Tony Abbott? Too demented.

Thus those Libs who believe they can restrict Rudd Labor to three years in the same way they restricted Whitlam Labor are drawn, in many case reluctantly, to Yesterday’s Man. Obviously they emphasise his strong points: He is a good performer in parliament when he can be bothered; no one is better at kicking a weakened opponent to death. And he is a relic of the economic boom. While no sensible person would give him the credit for the good times, he is at least a reminder of them.

But this can easily be turned against him. Costello the spendthrift, the prodigal son who p-ssed the nation’s wealth up against a wall, presided over 10 interest rate rises and bequeathed us a recession we did not have to have. For many of the Hawke-Keating years John Howard was derided as “the failed former treasurer;” it would be easy to award Peter Costello the same title.

At best installing him would be a big risk, assuming that the Murdoch press can persuade him to give his supporters the nod. But perhaps after nearly a year of effective unemployment, he — and they — no longer feel there is a choice.

Peter Fray

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