So Peter Costello actually spoke about the leadership on Friday night. He said this on the way in to his testimonial shindig on Friday night.

“I absolutely and totally support Brendan Nelson. He has been elected as the leader of the Liberal Party to take the Liberal Party to the next election and to win the next election, and he will have my total and utter support in doing that. As far as I’m concerned the Liberal Party leadership is a team of Dr Nelson and Julie Bishop and I’m supporting them.”

So that’s pretty clear then. Or so you’d think. They didn’t notice it at The Weekend Australian. Admittedly, they were very excited about a Nelson comment on Friday in which he appeared to say he’d welcome Costello changing his mind about the leadership. This barely even qualified for the appellation “gaffe”, a term so readily bandied about by political journalists as to have virtually lost all meaning. It was plain what Nelson meant, but it was declared “the last straw” by Dennis Shanahan. It takes particular obsessiveness, or sheer bastardry, to find something damning in such trivia.

By today, however, Costello’s Friday night words had sunk in, so the story was switched to Costello staying in politics, but on the backbench. Whether this was an invention of The Oz or those oft-quoted “senior Liberals” isn’t clear. Doubtless the former Treasurer would enjoy nothing more than staying on the backbench for another two and a half years, listening to Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan mock him in Question Time, his only purpose to represent the good citizens of Higgins and prop up Brendan Nelson.

That’ll fix Malcolm Turnbull, eh? He’ll rue the day he embarrassed Costello with that tax plan in 2005.

Fair dinkum. It’s a nonsense, as Michelle Grattan – channelling Nick Greiner – declared this morning.

Let’s be blunt about what Costello is doing. He’s damaging his own party to maximise the sales impact of his book. His failure to leave Parliament or announce his intention to leave is a deliberate act of selfishness, and not entirely different to Mark Latham selling his diaries. Every moment Costello stays there, he takes the focus, and the pressure, off the Government, and distracts from what’s left of Brendan Nelson’s leadership. And he knows perfectly well that he is doing it.

He’s getting plenty of help – from The Australian, and from his colleagues, especially blabber-mouth Tony Abbott, who won’t shut up about the leadership. But Costello could stop it at any moment, and chooses not to. Liberals who have kept their mouths shut and are trying to get on with their jobs must be furious.

For once, Glenn Milne is faintly on target today, describing the whole shemozzle as Stockholm Syndrome. Except he omitted to mention that a number of his colleagues are amongst the hostages.

Peter Fray

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