You knew Brendan Nelson’s goose was cooked — as if it hadn’t been in the oven all year — when speculation appeared in The Oz that Tony Abbott would make a fine deputy to Malcolm Turnbull.

Putting aside the possibility that it was Abbott himself saying that, and the surely humorous suggestion that he’s like Sarah Palin (maybe he can grab a rifle and a frock and show us if he is), once conservatives start talking about Turnbull, you can put down the glasses — Kazuo Kawasaki-designed and otherwise.

But there’s no counting of numbers or lobbying today, which suggests there’ll be no action initiated by Turnbull next week.

That’s not to say there won’t be action. You can never tell what a Bill Heffernan or a Wilson Tuckey might do. Bill Heffernan frequently seems to take it upon himself to try to organise his party the way he’d like it to be — ringing independents Craig Ingram and Rob Oakeshott to try to enlist them in the Liberal cause in Gippsland and Lyne, calling for an immediate merger with the Nats, talking about a spill motion in the party room.

There’s a number of Liberals who’d like the whole leadership mess sorted out immediately, which means getting rid of Nelson. Some may not be enthusiastic Turnbull supporters, but don’t want the damage being inflicted by Nelson to continue.

There may also be Turnbull supporters who, perhaps like Turnbull himself, would prefer nothing happen next week, wanting Turnbull to move when it’s clear to everyone that Nelson can’t continue.

In the middle are those who, like Andrew Robb, may think Turnbull would be quite satisfactory as a leader, but that the interests of the party are best served by everyone shutting up and getting on with their current job because musical chairs aren’t going to help the party.

Then there’s the party conservatives who know it’s over and want to switch to Turnbull, however much he may grate on them, as quickly as possible.

Other conservatives are with Nick Minchin, right behind Nelson.

Then there’s Peter Costello, who apparently gave a Sherman declaration to Sixty Minutes, that he would refuse to serve if elected leader. Not that that has stopped the speculation that he could sit on the backbench and watch Turnbull and implode and then change his mind.

That would remove the problem of Turnbull white-anting his own leadership–– Turnbull would leave politics and go off to be UN Secretary-General or something — but it depends on Turnbull imploding. Given his disciplined performance under Nelson, Turnbull is looking less and less volatile, but you couldn’t rule out a trainwreck. Brilliance comes at a price.

The dire position of Nelson is confirmed by new polling from Roy Morgan Research done on Wednesday and Thursday nights this week on preferred leaders. The polling shows that Nelson manages only 11%, compared to Costello’s 32% and Turnbull’s 20%. Nelson in fact scores the same as Joe Hockey, and only 3% above his deputy.

Worse, among Coalition voters, Costello is the preference of 45%, compared to Turnbull’s 20% and Nelson’s 10%, with Hockey on 9%. The figures also give away how much Turnbull appeals to moderates – only 22-23% of Labor and Green voters prefer Costello, compared to 20% of Labor voters for Turnbull and a whopping 38% of Greens who’d prefer Turnbull.

(The Morgan figures for Labor are also worth looking at, by the way — nearly a quarter of ALP voters would prefer Julia Gillard leading the party).

You can also spot a Sunrise effect at work in the age difference, with Joe Hockey significantly more popular with younger voters, while Costello’s support remains more of less the same across all age groups.

Intriguingly, Turnbull seems to be a turn-off for younger voters, only scraping together 9% of under 25s compared to Nelson’s 8%. Turnbull is also more popular with men than women, as is Costello. Nelson cuts the other way, though, as does Joe Hockey. Let’s see someone explain that without resort to gender stereotyping.

Parliament resumes on Monday. All the attention will be focussed on Turnbull and Nelson, which is just where the Government is happy for it to be. And that’s even before Tuesday’s book launch.

Peter Fray

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