PRIME MINISTER Kevin Rudd is in trouble.
But is his leadership really under the sort of imminent threat that some commentators, political opponents and even supposed allies have been suggesting, publicly and privately, of late?
According to the major published opinion polls, his government has a primary vote of about 36 per cent. He has a net negative personal rating as preferred prime minister. These are appalling figures for a prime minister swept to power on a wave of optimism and with such a mandate for reform just 2 years ago.
Rudd's administration had been one of Australia's most popular first-term governments. It's not surprising, then, that Labor strategists are alarmed at how quickly support for the government has evaporated since public opinion began to turn in February.
They are now pondering two critical scenarios. The first is whether voters have stopped believing and listening to Rudd. The second is whether voters actually see Tony Abbott as a viable, trustworthy alternative.
If the answer to both scenarios is “yes”, then the portents for Rudd are grim. Labor will not blithely stumble from first-term government to opposition when it has a viable, alternative leadership option that would save it from the electoral abyss.
Much is made of the pragmatism and ruthless efficiency of Labor's so-called machine men – that is, those who make or break leaders – in the face of an election loss. But the fact remains that federal Labor, especially in government, is extraordinarily respectful of, and deferential towards, its prime ministers.
To a point . . .
After inordinate soul-searching, Labor's black hands dispatched Bob Hawke for Paul Keating because they believed the messiah could no longer win. Six months before the pending electoral oblivion of 1996, they fleetingly considered replacing Keating.
In opposition, time was called on two favoured sons of the party – Simon Crean and Kim Beazley. But not before the party had bled significant public support and both men were given some opportunity to correct their respective courses. Even when Mark Latham, having lost the 2004 election, went AWOL over Christmas while his party burned, senior Labor figures – unsure of his whereabouts – closed ranks in an attempt to protect his dignity and, perhaps more importantly, that surrounding the office of Labor leader.
Latham's portrait still hangs on the wall of the caucus room.
The point is that Labor does not grant its leadership lightly. And it does not quickly take it away.
Rudd was always going to be the last to win a caucus popularity contest. He was never going to win it in opposition, when he irritated innumerable colleagues through his endless, transparent leadership anglings. And he was never going to win it as prime minister when he quickly indulged his instinct to centralise power, and allowed his achievements (on firewalling the economy, on education, health reform and reconciliation) to be overshadowed by a series of weak priority reversals, delivery failures and inept policy sales pitches.
Right now, amid the terrifying polls and the looming election, there is a widespread acknowledgement in caucus that Rudd has undersold his government's achievements and, by default, highlighted its weaknesses. His personal performance is under intense scrutiny, which means he is constantly lambasted for being too angry or too devoid of passion, too populist and yet too willing to make decisions in isolation.
It's no surprise, in these circumstances, that some backbenchers and ministers have been contemplating a series of “what if” leadership scenarios. As is the way in politics, nothing remains completely behind the veil; a series of Chinese whispers from Labor members has spun through the media and back into caucus to emerge out the other side as leadership “speculation”.
Senior Labor people – including faction leaders in Federal Parliament, state-based ideological warriors, prominent members of Labor's national executive and union leaders – have engaged in one way or another with the speculation. The overwhelming majority have talked it down, urging journalists to tread carefully.
One or two have, however, talked it up, peddling seemingly improbable scenarios whereby one of a number of putative – and not so putative – leaders is poised to challenge or otherwise take over from Rudd if the PM's stocks do not improve forthwith. Those mentioned include, not surprisingly, Julia Gillard, Lindsay Tanner, Wayne Swan and even Stephen Smith.
Those who criticise Rudd's caution might contemplate the irony of this last “option”.
They might also like to contemplate what precisely a change of leadership to the most realistic option of Gillard, or to the less realistic ones of Tanner or Swan, would achieve.
Tanner could legitimately claim to be free of association with the most damaging decision this government has taken – that is, to abandon its emissions trading plans. Tanner is said to have opposed the decision.
Swan supported it.
And if anyone doubted Gillard's capacity for political pragmatism before ideology, they ought to know that she was a most enthusiastic advocate of ditching the ETS. Yet only Rudd has been blamed.
Gillard, Swan and Tanner all enthusiastically support the government's super profits tax on mining. None, it should be said, more so than Swan who must surely take his share of responsibility for failing to market what is a legitimate revenue measure.
And now to the critical point: a challenge from either Swan or Tanner – in the unlikely event they were so inclined – would fail because Gillard would use her significant support to shore up Rudd.
So what would all this achieve?
One man of influence explains: “It would be political insanity. The challenger would lose and the party would be bitterly divided in the countdown to an election.
"That is why nobody in a position of authority is advocating any change right now. There is one solution for us and that is to win the election with Kevin as leader.”
The obvious next question is: what about Gillard? Those who shifted Gillard's support base behind Rudd so that he could win the leadership in 2006 are adamant that nothing, for now, has changed.
Things could easily shift before the election. But leadership speculation does not yet amount to leadership manoeuvring.
There's a big difference.