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Howard under pressure after poll setback

By Kathy Marks in Sydney

John Howard, the embattled Australian Prime Minister, was under intense pressure to consider his future last night as opinion polls predicted a crushing defeat for his conservative coalition in the forthcoming election.

Mr Howard is the country's second-longest-serving premier, with four election victories under his belt over the past 11 years. But the polls and the public mood indicate that Australians have had enough of him.

Last week, a majority of his once-loyal cabinet colleagues suggested he should step down in favour of his deputy, Peter Costello, in order to avoid an electoral disaster. In an effort to end the leadership speculation and appease members of his own Liberal Party, Mr Howard announced that, if re-elected, he would hand over power to Mr Costello part-way through the next parliamentary term.

The move did not silence his critics, however. They predicted he would be a "lame duck" leader in much the same way as his British counterpart Tony Blair, who went to the polls in 2005 with a pledge to give way to Gordon Brown before the next election. A poll in The Australian newspaper yesterday might give Mr Howard a brief reprieve. It forecast that the opposition Labour Party would win 55 per cent of the vote, with the coalition gaining 45 per cent. That would still mean a humiliating defeat for the government – but the figures have improved since a fortnight ago, when another survey gave Labour an 18-point lead. It fell further to 16 points last week.

Another bad poll yesterday would probably have made Mr Howard's position untenable and he might not have survived the week. As it is, he can claim the tide is turning in his favour. The pressure is unlikely to let up, however, with the coalition facing a Labour Party revitalised under its fresh-faced new leader, Kevin Rudd. Mr Rudd, a former diplomat and foreign affairs spokesman, appears to be winning voter support.

Mr Howard's surprise announcement that he would step down after the next election shows just how vulnerable he knows his position to be. Reluctant to relinquish power, the 68-year-old has always resisted naming a date for his departure. Last week, his hand was forced.

Despite the glimmer of hope offered by the latest poll, it looks as if Mr Howard is heading for a crushing defeat – not only ousted from government, but also, possibly, from the Sydney seat he has held since 1974. While Mr Rudd may be Mr Howard's nemesis nationally, in his Bennelong constituency it is Maxine McKew, an engaging and incisive former television current affairs presenter, who is standing for Labour. If Mr Howard does lose his seat to Miss McKew, 54, he would be the first serving prime minister to do so since Stanley Melbourne Bruce in 1929.

Mr Howard has been through periods of electoral unpopularity before and has always managed to pull a victory out of the hat. But this time the mood of the country is against him. His government is seen as arrogant, out of touch, and clinging to power with no real vision to offer Australia.

It is unclear what will happen next. Mr Howard seems determined to lead his party into a fifth election, which is certain to take place before the end of the year and possibly as soon as October. The Liberals appear reluctant to depose him and Mr Costello – despite years of waiting in the wings for the leadership – has pledged that he will not mount a challenge. The polls, moreover, suggest the result could be even worse for the coalition if it went into the election with Mr Costello, the long-serving Treasurer, at the helm. It is, of course, not beyond the realms of possibility that an increasingly desperate Liberal Party could dump Mr Howard and bypass Mr Costello in favour of a new leader with better prospects of victory.

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