The Liberals never disappoint. They lose government, they fight amongst one another because their power has been taken away and they search desperately, often in the most unlikely places, for a Messiah. It happens every time.

John Howard was the person who lost the 2007 election for the Liberals (with a bit of help from Peter Costello and the others), but the party has been intent on venting its anger first on the hapless Brendan Nelson and now, apparently, Malcolm Turnbull, for not being in government. The fact that they have not had an opportunity to do so counts not at all.

Power is everything in the Liberal Party. It takes a highly instrumental view of leadership in that the sole criterion is the capacity to maintain power in government or win it from opposition. Unlike the ALP (though Simon Crean might beg to differ), there is no sense of loyalty to the office as such.

Nelson was never going to cut it, and Turnbull has been falling behind in the polls ever since he took the helm last year — the kiss of death in Liberal land.

Poor Bill Snedden never had a chance after inheriting a divided and demoralised party after Gough Whitlam swept the Liberals from office after 23 years in 1972. The mystique (and perks) of office had been stripped away; he was seen to be merely mortal by his colleagues (and post-Menzies, that was fatal). He was given one shot in 1974 and cut down by Malcolm Fraser in 1975 at his second coup attempt. By then, of course, the Whitlam government was disintegrating, and Fraser looked like the sure thing that he was — a genuine Messiah.

Andrew Peacock and John Howard both wanted the leadership after Fraser lost in 1983, and both had it — twice. But a lot of blood was spilt in the process and the Liberals were consigned to the wilderness for 13 years after election losses in 1983, 1984, 1987, 1990 and 1993 — each one more painful and more humiliating than the one before.

Howard rolled Peacock in 1985 after Peacock tried to shaft him as deputy. Peacock had his revenge after Howard lost in 1987 — and both bore the brunt of the party’s anger for the loss in 1990.

Enter the circuit breaker — John Hewson, untainted by history as he had been in parliament only since 1987. Hail the new Messiah!

It looked good for a time; the civil war that had ranged for almost a decade was stilled by a ceasefire, and the Liberals again sniffed the heady prospect of power. But Hewson cautioned it might take two terms to get there; the party power brokers agreed to give him that time.

Of course, he lost the so-called unloseable election in 1993, the pledge of support for two-terms was quickly forgotten and reneged on and the knives were out for Hewson for displaying mere (but unforgiveable) mortality.

There had to be a new Messiah — someone, anyone. Why anyone thought it could be Alexander Downer has never been explained. (Was it simply a joke made in the party room that was taken seriously?)

Silly Liberals! They quickly realised that the Chosen One had been among them the whole time — but they had failed to recognise him in his first incarnation. The long-awaited prince, once mistaken for a frog, duly led his ragged followers out of the wilderness into their rightful palace of power once more, vindicating once again their collective wisdom.

Fast forward to the present and the saga is updated. One frog deposed, another frog trying hard to prove he is a prince, and a confused frog who always wanted to be a prince (but that was in the palace, not in the forest where they now live) reciting his Hamlet soliloquy.

Life outside the palace was never meant to be easy. (Liberal saying attributed to former Messiah).

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey