Backbench assignment is not always a dead end

In his devastation, Kevin Rudd could take comfort from the experience of another one-time prime minister who lost the support of his own side: Robert Menzies.

Having spent three months visiting war-torn Britain in 1941, then prime minister Menzies returned to find his cabinet in revolt.

After failing to secure majority support in the cabinet, Menzies resigned and was reported to have said: ''I have been done … I'll lie down and bleed awhile.''

This was a leader who had held office for 2½ years but who had been widely seen as abrasive and arrogant.

Sound familiar?

His predecessor and rival, Earle Page, had been a bitter critic, accusing him of disloyalty and cowardice. Menzies was ''unable to lead a flock of homing pigeons'', said Page, who himself held the prime ministership for just 19 days.


Menzies retired for a time to the backbench, where he reached out to the public via radio, making 80 ''fireside chat'' broadcasts.

He returned as Opposition Leader in 1943. But it was not for eight years after his cabinet ignominy that Menzies was to wrest power from Labor.

The man who could not lead a flock of pigeons ended up flying high for 16 years to become by far Australia's longest-serving prime minister.

Menzies, in his first iteration, and Rudd held power for a similar period but in very different circumstances.

Menzies was prime minister during a war and while leading a divided Coalition government; Rudd survived a global financial crisis only to lose the leadership after abandoning the ''great moral challenge'' of carbon trading.

Menzies is the only leader since the war to have made a successful return bout as prime minister.

In more recent times, prime ministers, once they have lost office, have departed parliament soon afterwards, as witness John Howard, Paul Keating, Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser.

The most enduring political figure in many senses was Billy Hughes, who sat in Parliament for a record 51 years and seven months.

The ''Little Digger'' hung on as prime minister for eight years at the helm of three different political groupings. After losing government in 1923, he remained in parliament for another 30 years.

Would Rudd have the patience of a Menzies or a Hughes to wait years for another leadership opportunity?

Would he look to the precedent provided by his predecessor as Labor prime minister, Keating? He went to the back bench after failing to unseat Hawke by 44 to 66 votes in a leadership challenge in June 1991.

Just six months later, as the polls plummeted for both Hawke and Labor, Keating pounced again, and won by five votes.