One of the toughest walks in Parliament House is from the Opposition Leader’s office out to the “Opposition Leader’s Courtyard”, the uncourtyard-like area adjacent to House of Representatives Chamber where leaders hold press conferences while smokers grab a nicotine hit nearby and staff sun themselves or grab a bite to eat.

When things are going badly, trudging out to greet the assembled horde of journalists, who can watch your every step from across the courtyard until you reach the microphone, can be a lonely journey. Brendan Nelson took it last year when, on a bitingly cold winter’s day, he came out to spend ten minutes trying to avoid admitting that he’d been rolled on emissions trading by shadow cabinet. His leadership, never especially healthy, was dead from that moment on.

Malcolm Turnbull took a similar walk yesterday. His leadership certainly isn’t terminal — if anything it was healthier than it has been for a while — but he didn’t have a much better story to tell.

Today’s coverage has focussed on the Turnbull-Costello “clash” that was, depending on whom you believe, “good-natured”, “tense” or “polite”. The feeling of a number of MPs was that, regardless of the atmospherics, Turnbull umprompted invited Costello to contribute on the specific issue of whether to block or not block and Costello struggled to offer a coherent response. From that point of view, Turnbull strengthened his position.

But viewing it through the prism of the leadership is a distraction from the real problem that the Coalition are hopelessly conflicted on IR, to such an extent that at the moment they’re like a patient in a coma, alive but unable to respond or react.

One of the few good things about the brief Nelson era was that, despite being backed by party conservatives, he began the work of dragging the party away from its Howard-era hang-ups. He got most of his colleagues to back an apology to the Stolen Generations. He declared WorkChoices dead and he backed the ratification of Kyoto. It’s clear that Malcolm Turnbull has to complete the work begun by his predecessor, and it is WorkChoices — surprisingly sprightly for something declared dead so often — where the most work is needed.

Because after a mammoth joint party room meeting yesterday, the Coalition still can’t say whether it will oppose Julia Gillard’s IR bill. The Opposition is selling this as tactical flexibility but the reality — that they can’t agree — is painfully clear.

Normally the Press Gallery is briefed on party room meetings afterwards. Leaders’ comments are described, as are contributions and questions from the floor, although without individuals’ names. Yesterday the ALP gave its briefing, complete with a summary of Kevin Rudd’s laborious, cyclone-themed account of what he was doing about the economic crisis. Normally the Coalition briefing follows hot on its heels, but yesterday there was nothing until a press conference alert emerged from Turnbull’s office, scheduled for 1.45pm. The Coalition leadership had decided that it might be best if Turnbull handled things himself.

They might have recalled that, some weeks ago, the spokesman providing the Coalition joint partyroom briefing had given the wrong impression about the Opposition’s stance on the stimulus package, requiring Turnbull’s office to tidy up afterwards.

The problem was, Turnbull had nothing much to report. He was eager, indeed enthusiastic and eloquent, about explaining the amendments the Coalition wanted. Journalists were just as eager to get past that to find out if the Coalition would be supporting or opposing the bill. Would they insist on their amendments?

He replied “we will insist on the amendments we are proposing, but we may be able to agree on alternatives to those amendments with the independent senators and perhaps with the Government.”

Turnbull normally looks unfazed and unfazable, but he even he looked a tad shamefaced at that line.

By this stage it was nearly Question Time. Government Ministers were walking past, heading for the chamber, clutching their folders. Julia Gillard was among them. As the press conference broke up, journalists promptly informed her of the Coalition’s non-decision. Gillard chortled with delight and headed into the chamber to get stuck into them.

Gillard, of course, had already got most of the way to hammering out a deal with the Xenophon, Fielding and the Greens, having written to them over the weekend and begun meeting with them on Monday. One issue the Government doesn’t appear to be giving ground on is one of the most sensible of the Opposition’s suggestions, that the Government ditch a “headcount” approach to defining small businesses, which means micro-businesses that employ a lot of part-time or casual staff may be unnecessarily caught in unfair dismissal laws.

It would be perfectly sensible of Gillard to switch to a full-time equivalent approach. There’d still be a debate about what constitutes a small business — ABS uses 20 FTEs, not 15 which is the threshold in the bill — but the chances of perverse outcomes would be lessened significantly.

Nevertheless, the Coalition looks as though it has been left behind on an issue that is core business for both parties. Turnbull has been left complaining, both yesterday and again this morning, almost in a plaintive tone, that Gillard wouldn’t negotiate with him.

At least Turnbull now knows what Nelson went through trying to drag his party away its most damaging Howard-era obsessions. And that will continue to be a problem regardless of whether Peter Costello stays or goes.