It isn’t only Kevin Rudd playing a high-stakes game in his bid to reclaim the ALP leadership. So is veteran Labor strategist Bruce Hawker.

Hawker, who has been involved in almost every Labor state and federal election campaign for the past 15 years, this morning resigned from Queensland Premier Anna Bligh’s campaign team. He’s got another campaign — Rudd’s — on his mind.

Hawker counselled Rudd on the phone yesterday before his dramatic 1am resignation speech as foreign affairs minister. Immediately after Rudd’s announcement, he appeared on Sky News, then 7.30, to talk up the former PM’s chances in a leadership ballot.

He denied Rudd had been running a covert campaign against Gillard, praised him as “probably the most popular politician in the country”, and said there are many examples of leaders returning to power after a stint in the wilderness.

“[T]he Australian Labor Party caucus doesn’t want to see this thing happening over and over again,” he said. “They want to see this thing resolved and I think the way you do that is to give Kevin Rudd a victory if he decides to go for it at the first attempt.”

It was a stunning intervention for a man who built his career as a lobbyist and campaigner on his reputation as a loyal servant for the Labor cause. For decades, Hawker has fronted the media to spruik for Labor — regardless of who’s in power or how badly the party is faring.

Despite being close to Rudd, he campaigned for Gillard at the 2010 election and helped negotiate her deal with the independents.

Now, he’s no longer a servant. He’s a player.

Rudd and Hawker have been close since the days of the Wayne Goss government in Queensland. Like Rudd, Hawker is opposed to the power wielded by unions and faction bosses in the ALP.

As detailed in our Power Index profile of Hawker earlier this month:

“In Canberra, Hawker’s sway has dwindled since Kevin Rudd’s demise. Hawker was working in Rudd’s office the day he was rolled, and admits the transition to Julia Gillard was “very challenging” for him. He’s not close to the PM, has had little to do with her chief of staff Ben Hubbard, and is yet to speak to Gillard’s new communications director John McTernan. This is partly because Gillard’s office is dominated by operatives from Victoria, where Hawker’s influence has never been strong.”

If Rudd doesn’t succeed, it could spell disaster for Hawker’s political campaigning business. It’s hard to imagine him working a federal re-election battle with Gillard at the helm. Others in the party will never forgive him for throwing his lot in with the widely-loathed Rudd.

If the Queenslander succeeds, that’s a whole different story. The mysterious man with the moustache will again be at the centre of political power.

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