There is growing anger within the Coalition over the Peter Costello saga – and it isn’t directed at the man himself.

One senior frontbencher who has sat back and watched the last couple of weeks with deepening anger has complained to Crikey about the way limelight-deprived frontbenchers had joined in the Costello mania. “I’ve got a bunch of colleagues who were players for a long time, like Tony Abbott, and they want to still be relevant, want to see their face on the box. The last few weeks have been a pure indulgence, almost like an amusement to them.”

Dead right. It’s only a couple of months since Abbott – the staunchest of Howard loyalists – was declaring that Malcolm Turnbull was next in line after Brendan Nelson. On Sunday he was declaring his love for Peter Costello. Oh, and don’t forget he’s got a book coming out too.

The frontbencher also made the point that Nelson is continuing to give the party what it wanted, which is consultation, even if the process is messy and doesn’t look good in public. Despite Nelson’s failure to cut through publicly, he has enabled his colleagues to have greater ownership of policy positions, and there are long-term benefits to that.

“Musical chairs won’t help us,” the MP – who voted for Turnbull last November – said. They are deeply frustrated at the extent to which the whole episode is distracting from the real goal of developing good policy and encouraging talented junior MPs to emerge.

Speculation today has – absurdly – swung back to Costello leaving. Even his confidantes remain divided. Mitch Fifield says he’s left the building. Peter Coleman says he’s reconsidering. So Costellogists are now split into the Realist and Idealist schools. Before long there’ll be accusations of “splitter” and sub-factions.

At least we do know, from MUP publisher Louise Adler, that his book won’t be a revenge manual.

Except this whole process looks like one giant act of revenge on a party that refused to countenance him as leader when he could’ve been Prime Minister.

This drama has not been of Costello’s making but he could’ve ended it at any time by simply repeating his statement from last November that he was leaving. He wouldn’t even have cruelled his book-launch announcement if he’d done so. Instead, he’s been happy – seemingly, quite happy – to let his party descend into chaos. Brendan Nelson has become a figure of mockery – OK, more mockery – and whenever frontbenchers open their mouths to attack the Government, no sound is heard. All the air has been sucked out of the political debate by the Costello speculation. And all while the economy is stalling and we’re supposed to be discussing the biggest economic reform in decades.

Watching his colleagues choke without political oxygen is, it seems, profoundly gratifying to a man who had his own ambitions choked, who had to stay silent and watch as his party let John Howard take them into electoral oblivion. The jilted lover is enjoying watching the erstwhile object of his desires in a complete mess over him.

The fact that it maximises his chances of selling plenty of copies of his memoir, and justifying his MUP advance, won’t hurt. But you get the impression Costello is loving every minute of this.

It doesn’t say much for the man. But it says even less for his party – and those senior MPs who should know better.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey