CANBERRA AFFAIRS: News Weekly
Will Liberals dump Howard before election?
, August 4, 2007
There are serious concerns that, unlike at previous elections, John Howard has been unable to make a dent in Kevin Rudd's popularity.John Howard's response to the continuing run of poor poll results for his 11-year-old Coalition Government has been, at least on the surface, to remain calm and resolved.
It is a tactic of moving forward in the face of adversity — and playing to one of his key strengths at the same time.
With only a couple of months to go, whether this is enough to win back the voters who have turned off the Prime Minister is impossible to gauge.
Certainly, the vast majority of commentators and pollsters have written the Government off — for them the election is a foregone conclusion.
And even inside the Liberal Party there are serious concerns that, unlike at previous elections, Mr Howard has been unable to make a dent in Kevin Rudd's popularity.Rout feared
Cassandras inside the Coalition fear a rout in the coming poll, with a serious loss of seats which could cripple the Liberals and Nationals for two or three terms.
Added to this, the troubles inside the Liberal Party — particularly the airing of Peter Costello's resentments about the Prime Minister in a new biography — have also led to intense media speculation about a possible leadership handover.
To date, not one MP inside the Liberal Party has publicly come forward to argue the case for a change of leader — although the Melbourne Age
reported that two backbenchers had put this view anonymously.
Much of the agitation for a change is coming from the Labor Party, which would much prefer to do battle against Mr Costello than against Mr Howard.
Labor has released private polling allegedly showing that the Prime Minister is "old and sneaky" and the chief reason for the Government's problems.
Labor has also promoted the first anniversary of the last serious Costello challenge to the Prime Minister — following the revelation of the 1994 secret deal witnessed by Ian McLachlan — which surfaced this time last year.
There is no appetite for a challenge, and even the most reckless Liberal MP knows this would be the equivalent of a political kamikaze.
The only alternative is for Mr Howard to go of his own volition.
Anything is possible in politics, but, barring any sudden change of heart, it is hard to conceive Mr Howard deciding to jump off a sinking ship.
Such a move would be totally uncharacteristic of his back-to-the-wall, determined and stoical nature. But, even more, it would be a huge political risk.
The only possible alternative, Mr Costello, has also argued strongly that Mr Howard must lead the party at the coming election and that he has no intention of either challenging or assuming the top job.
Yet Glenn Milne, widely-read political columnist for The Australian
newspaper, still believes there is time and opportunity to switch leaders.
Milne is known in Canberra's parliamentary press gallery as a journalist who is close to the Treasurer to the point where his views are occasionally seen as being in sync with those of Mr Costello himself.
"With an election fast becoming weeks rather than months away, the only option for leadership change now is an unlikely voluntary handover by Howard," Milne wrote recently.
"If the Liberal Party is seeking encouragement in this regard, it needs look no further than the example of (Kevin) Rudd.
"He has privately told colleagues that the immediate lift in Labor's stocks following his ascension to the leadership had less to do with any magical qualities associated with him than with voters giving the party a tick for finally recognising what they had known all along; that Beazley was unelectable." (The Australian
, July 23, 2007).
If the opinion piece is to be believed, the suggestion then is that Mr Costello may be privately still open to the idea of a handover.
But if polls are to be believed, Peter Costello is far less popular than Mr Howard, and even the stature and freedom the Prime Ministerial office brings would be unlikely to change this.
The truth is, if senior Liberals recklessly were to decide to "tap the PM on the shoulder", they would be playing right into Labor's hands.