Apparently Downer was sucking on a cigar as he presided over the leadership meeting last week. Peter Hartcher reveals that MPs were surprised at even being asked their thoughts on the issue.
One mused aloud: is Howard asking for permission to retire? Is he asking us to save him from himself? "Overall, it comes down to the Prime Minister's state of mind - you want a leader who thinks he can win," one minister remarked after the meeting...That's Team Howard, right there.
There was a strong consensus that there could be no plot or putsch or party room vote. There could be no delegation to tell Howard to go. It had to be his decision.
But, strikingly, participants report that not one of the people in the room took a firm and consistent position that Howard should stay. Philip Ruddock's position was described as the most pro-Howard in the room, and even he was equivocal, ministers report. Ruddock was the only person in the room who has served longer in Parliament than Howard himself.
Downer's view? The former leader of the federal Liberal Party gave the group the very strong impression that, so long as Howard thought he couldn't win the election or win Bennelong, he should go.
But the result was that no one in Howard's cabinet advocated unequivocally that the Prime Minister should stay on, either in the room or in phone consultations and other meetings. Even his most fervent devotee, Tony Abbott, agonised over the question and gave other ministers the clear impression that he thought Howard should go; however it seems he quietly held to his belief in his hero.
The graphic above is from an online poll at Teh Oz, asking:
Will John Howard's suggestion he may not serve a full term influence your vote in the upcoming election?Results are currently showing 52% of respondents "won't vote Coalition anyway", while a further 13% say they will "definitely switch from Coalition", and a further 8% saying they are "less likely to vote Coalition". That's a total of 65 to 73 percent, and these are Teh Oz readers!
The nation's punters are also not impressed with "Team Howard":
Punters have already reacted to the news that a vote for John Howard is a vote for Peter Costello, with Sportingbet Australia saying the odds on a Labor victory have narrowed even further.Teh Oz editorial, meanwhile, talks about "the risk, even if Mr Howard does win the election, of becoming a lame duck". Both the editorial and Sham-I-am call on Costello to step up to the plate and take a more prominent role. Actually, he should have stepped up to the plate a week ago. But he wasn't even on the field.
Sportingbet CEO Michael Sullivan says the odds of Kevin Rudd becoming prime minister have narrowed to $1.30, while they've drifted out to $3.60 on Mr Howard.
UPDATE: Howard tells The Team it's not me, it's you:
"The opinion polls do indicate that my level of personal popularity is quite high, given I've been prime minister for 11 and a half years, it really is. In fact, my level of personal support is significantly higher than that of the party's. If the party's level of support in the opinion polls was as high as mine is, well, we'd be a different story."PS: A Baedeker is an old travel guide, and the title of this post is a reference to a poem by T.S. Eliot. In case you are interested...
Howard crossed a little bridge
Descending at a small soirée
Princess Janet arrived,
They were together, and he fell.
Defunctive music under sea
Passed seaward with the passing bell
Slowly: the God Electorate
Had left him, that had loved him well.
The limos, live on camera
Beat up George Street from Circular Quay
With snipers watching. APEC's shuttered fools
Talked in the bars all the day.
But this or such was Howard's way:
A saggy bending of the knees
And elbows, with the palms turned out,
Canberra Zionist as you please.
A lustreless protrusive eye
Stares from the protozoic slime
At a perspective of Kevin07.
The smoky candle end of time
Declines. At the Lodge once.
The rats are underneath the piles.
Murdoch is underneath the lot.
Money in wars. The boatman smiles,
Princess Janet extends
A meagre, blue-nailed, phthisic hand
To climb the waterstair. Lights, lights,
She entertains the Governor
General. Who clipped the lion's wings
And flea'd his rump and pared his claws?
Thought Costello, meditating on
Time's ruins, and the seven laws.