A single sentence on the leadership issue dropped from the lips of Peter Costello yesterday, but for Costellogists, who lately have made do with absolutely nothing except incessant speculation, it was manna from heaven, a veritable feast after months of gut-aching famine.

Dennis Shanahan — who lately has taken on the role of Emeritus Professor of Costellogy — admitted that Costello, in denying he would challenge Nelson for the leadership, hadn’t told us anything we didn’t already know.

But that, as veteran Costellogists will quickly tell you, is not the point. Costello has spent a decade telling us that he won’t challenge for the leadership. If Costellogy was based on new information, it would have vanished in the late 1990s. It’s all about the way he says “I won’t be challenging for the leadership” and the context.

For Shanahan, Costello ruling out any leadership challenge of course can mean only one thing – he wants to lead the party:

This is not the demeanour of a man who is sticking to his public statement last year that he would retire from politics and seek a job in private enterprise. This is the demeanour of a man who wants to challenge Kevin Rudd’s and Wayne Swan’s control of the economy.

But perhaps just to demonstrate how flexible he is, Shanahan was also talking up Brendan Nelson. “Nelson is fighting back,” he declared in a separate piece. Fighting back against what, he didn’t say. Perhaps against The Australian’s campaign to prevent Malcolm Turnbull from taking the leadership by trying to get Peter Costello into the job. Or perhaps against Nelson himself. Nelson, after all, is an emotional man, and contradicts himself on a regular basis.

Maybe Nelson needs to have a fight with himself to work out once and for all what he actually believes in. At the moment every press conference is like watching Dr Strangelove’s hand come creeping up to strangle its owner, so that by the end Nelson is fiercely advocating the exact opposite of what he said minutes or hours before.

This is bloody ridiculous. They’re back in Parliament next week. Nelson will be there, propped up at the Dispatch Box Weekend at Bernie’s style (yes, a second movie analogy, I know — just think Peter Sellers playing a corpse on water skies).

Brendan is waiting for Peter. Peter is waiting for Brendan. But he’s also waiting, a little bit, for Malcolm, who is waiting for Peter as well. The rest of the party is waiting, too. And the press gallery is breathlessly watching the waiting, waiting for the waiting to end. Never in the history of political conflict have so many waited for so few for so little.

When, down the track, Malcolm Turnbull is an effective and perhaps even successful Leader of the Opposition, because he’s the only one on the Liberal side with the guts and the brains to run the joint, and maybe he’s got a decent deputy like Andrew Robb who has substance and a willingness to have a go, and we finally get an Opposition worthy of the name and capable of exploiting Kevin Rudd’s more unfortunate habits, we’ll look back and laugh. Maybe.

Peter Fray

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