It would seem on the surface that the Liberal leadership has descended into fantasy with talk that the politically astute former Treasurer could be a serious contender only six months after having turned it down when offered it on a plate.

However, combined with Tuesday’s Newspoll surveying the popularity of various leadership combinations (that curiously included a proposed combination of Costello/Turnbull), it has prompted an outbreak of political calculation from pundits. Convoluted scenarios have been produced about senior Liberals wanting to leave Nelson in just long enough until the right time for Turnbull to come in, or maybe some other leader filling the gap to take the hit in popularity until the Liberals put the right person in at the right time.

All of these scenarios are just journalese nonsense. What none of these calculations can ever explain, and couldn’t anticipate at the time, is why the Liberals’ electorally most popular leader didn’t just romp it in six months ago. Turnbull lost the leadership ballot because the party is not engaged in some detached judging of a talent contest, it is in the middle of a political process over which its participants do not have control.

Australia is going through a profound political crisis. It doesn’t seem like it because this is not about a dramatic clash of alternatives but more like an implosion. It is clearest in the Liberal party since the election but was already evident with the paralysis in the leadership in the run up to their defeat. It is the crisis in the Liberal party that will be the driving influence of its leadership.

A political crisis has its own dynamic, especially one has profound as this one. For a political party whose historical role has come to an end, there is a point at which it becomes clear that the past is no longer viable but the future is no longer recognisable. This leads, for a while, to a suspended hiatus between the two that is the secret of Nelson’s leadership. He won the leadership contest because the past (Abbott) realised if he didn’t withdraw, the result would a Liberal party unrecognisable under Turnbull.

With such a negative basis for assuming the leadership it is not surprising that Nelson would be unable to stop the rot. What has not helped him, however, are tactics that have not only exposed the Liberals bankruptcy but made it seem as though the crisis in the Liberal party is really about him and so hastened calls for his removal.

The usual way that this goes is that the next stage is for the past (i.e. the old Liberal leadership) to try and regain control. There are signs that they are starting to do so. A couple of careful party appearances by Howard have clearly been designed to buck the party up and remind them of what they stand for (which isn’t Turnbull). The trouble for them is that their main objective, the prevention of a Turnbull win, is still not assured. Nelson’s ineptitude has forced them to move earlier than they would like, but without the certainty that by doing so, Turnbull won’t get up.

The uncertainty that a candidate preferred by the leadership, such as Bishop or Abbot, would win, is probably why we are hearing more about Costello. In theory, he would be the only feasible candidate that would have a chance of preventing a Turnbull win if a spill occurred. Could it be why we also had that strange combination of Costello/Turnbull in the Newspoll survey that The Australian then trumpeted on its front page as the ‘Dream Ticket’? Given the Liberal heirachy’s desperation, having the party run by someone they distrust, but at least keeping Turnbull from the top job, would be the best they could dream for. Never mind that Costello is electorally unpopular, politically inept, hated by his colleagues and doesn’t want the job. Nor that Turnbull would never accept a deputy leadership under him. This is not about making sense to a political outsider, but the sign of a leadership struggling to regain ownership of a party that is slipping out of their control.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 25 April 2008.

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