The (self-)destruction of Tony Abbott begins
Over many years, Abbott has constructed an appearance of strength in his intellect and sense of self, with touchstones such as conservatism, the monarchy, the Liberal Party as revealed by John Howard and Bronwyn Bishop, and Catholicism as revealed by B A Santamaria and George Pell. The swagger, the insistence that you have to take him as you find him (i.e. that you have to assume the image he projects at face value is the same as the substance at the core of who he is) is all part of this.
The requirements of leadership of a major party, and the idea that you might become Prime Minister, require from you more than just indulgence of the self. That's why Bob Hawke had to give up the grog, why Paul Keating had to retreat from the limelight and hope that people would miss him, why John Howard had to finally embrace Medicare and be nice to moderates. Kevin Rudd had it easy in that he didn't have a public persona to give up in pursuit of the Prime Ministership: what he did in pursuit of that office was assumed to be who he really was, in the absence of any information to the contrary.
Tony Abbott, however, has form. That whole take-me-as-I-am thing was never going to work. Everyone who becomes Prime Minister has to change to some extent in order to adapt to the office. Abbott can't let go of certain issues without losing sense of who he is. Worse, he has a parliamentary party behind him who will take any signs of personal growth as shilly-shallying and betrayal.
First there was the kind words about Malcolm Fraser: a man who had already left the Liberal Party, an act to placate people Abbott never had much time for and who never voted for him, who apparently aren't important to the Liberal Party's strategy in the coming election and nor to the party's future generally. Now there's this crap about the environment, and the sulky going-to-ground that followed. There's more of this sort of stuff to come, that whole idea of being a conservative but moving with the times - who does he think he is, a moderate?
Moderate liberals know that you have to pry ideas away from Labor in order to make the case for government, but to make the case within the Liberal Party makes you an easy mark for accusations of 'weakness' from the hidebound reactionaries who are Abbott's base. Preparing Liberals for change can actually make change harder to achieve, and has the effect where changes are made without reference to ordinary party members, which alienates them further, etc.
Tony Abbott has to wonder just how badly he wants to be Prime Minister. He was always going to have to soften the edges of the modern Liberal Party to appeal to voters who are alienated from Rudd, but skeptical of Abbott and for whom the 2007 election was not a clerical error but a determination to be rid of Howard. Policies like parental leave aren't game-changers, they so lack credibility that they erode the credibility of Abbott himself. Abbott's base hates Malcolm Fraser. They hate greenies and carbon-climate-blah-blah-blah. They don't have the devotion to Israel that the American right does (with its large base of Christian fundamentalists and Jews), so Julie Bishop looks more like a goose in defending Israel (and trashing Australia's passport system) than some champion of the Holy Land. They have their man in place and they won't tolerate any backsliding on his part.
Abbott's base believe that the solution to the success of the unions in opposing WorkChoices is to bring back WorkChoices, under the assumption that the unions can't be bothered opposing it again (or something). They are totally ready to sacrifice anyone who stands in the way of that assumption, including Tony Abbott.
There's only so much he can get out of old faves like the announcement on boat people. "We need to stop the boats", he said. It isn't a national policy imperative as overstayers are a worse problem. No, the "we" is Abbott and Morrison themselves, the scaremongers battling relevance-deprivation syndrome.
It was true that Abbott has rattled Rudd. Another appearance like his press club "debate" on health, another random good poll, and Rudd will rally. More to the point, the Labor front bench is not ready to die in a ditch wringing their hands like Howard's cabinet did this time three years ago, where they agreed the leader was preventing them from winning but couldn't bring themselves to move against him. Already, Gillard and Swan and Tanner and other ministers are using their experience and status in office, standing up on policy in a way that exposes the Coalition as unready (show me someone who's been savaged by Stephen Smith and I'll show you someone unfit to be Deputy Leader of anything). Labor isn't ready to leave office and the Coalition aren't ready to take it. Rudd will win despite himself and Abbott will lose because of himself.
This leaves Tony Abbott selling himself down the river on a hopeless mission and unable to come back once the inevitable defeat occurs - defeat electorally, defeat within the Liberal Party, and defeat psychologically. I wonder how many of Abbott's base, not strong people united in common cause but patsies waiting to be mugged and let down, will be there for Abbott once he confronts the unravelling of what he might call his integrity, others his superego. Maybe his family will be there for him, maybe a priest or two, and perhaps one or two faithful retainers, but no more.
With that will come the collapse of the whole Howard restoration idea - what will happen then is a matter for the Liberal Party, and those who claim they support Tony Abbott will be torn between their party and its current leader, who is on a hiding-to-nothing politically and personally. It won't be pretty and it can't be avoided.
Update 30 May: Stories like this and this, revealing Abbott as a flake, are long overdue. It's good that they haven't waited until after the election but they could've exposed him during his time as shadow minister for families families and dilettantes.