Grattan on Friday: caucus members are sitting on a powder keg

Kevin Rudd’s campaigning today will be a reminder to the caucus of his popularity among people. AAP/Dave Hunt

Kevin Rudd will hit western Sydney today to do some high profile campaigning. For Labor, he would say. For the leadership, others would note.

Rudd will be mobbed. He’ll visit schools in the electorates of Reid and McMahon. The seats are held by a couple of loyalists, John Murphy and former minister Chris Bowen. Bowen went to the backbench after the March non-challenge but would be treasurer if if Rudd returned.

The former PM will talk to the kids about leadership and the like. He’ll canvass the Gonski school funding plan during his campaigning. It’s Julia Gillard’s issue of the week, and she has MPs outside schools today. Not that they’ll get coverage. The cameras only have eyes for one Labor backbencher at the moment.

Early in the year, Gillard spent the best part of a week in western Sydney, without getting out much among the people, or raking in votes. The area remains a potential disaster for Labor. Reid is on a 2.7% margin; McMahon, 7.8%. On present indications Reid is gone and McMahon problematic.

The media pictures coming out of Rudd’s visit will emphasise that he gets on to the ground; the not-so-subtle message will be that he could save a swag of these seats if only his caucus colleagues would swallow their pride, doubts and allegiances and restore him to his old job.

As Rudd’s moon face has beamed from various hustings, this has been another bad week for Gillard. Last year’s misogyny speech might have been a hit but Tuesday’s pitch to women didn’t do so well. She raised a scare about what Tony Abbott might do on abortion, only to have some on her own backbench say, in effect, they wished she hadn’t.

Then there was the strange affair of the men in blue ties. She was warning that under Abbott there’d be fewer women at the top (as there would under a Rudd government?) But it came out a bit crazily and was easy to send up.

It’s hard to know precisely how the cards fell in the confused claims, denials, apologies and confession over the offensive sexist menu referring to Gillard’s figure – let’s give a win there to Labor.

But one problem with I-am-woman pitch in general is that it could further alienate male voters (if that’s possible).

With the June 30 deadline looming, Gillard intensified her pressure on the states to get behind Gonski. The number of governments “landed” is two – NSW and the ACT – out of eight (with South Australia expected today).

Gillard flew to Perth and offered Liberal premier Colin Barnett an improved deal. It’s hard to see the logic of this. WA was always the state least likely to sign. She could get away with it not doing so, if Victoria and Queensland could be snared.

The federal government had said consistently that it wouldn’t vary its basic offer. To do so for WA complicates the situation with other states - and WA isn’t taking the bait.

In Perth Gillard had to endure bizarre and outrageous questioning from radio presenter Howard Sattler, who confronted her with the “rumour” that partner Tim Mathieson was gay. “But you hear it – "he must be gay, he’s a hairdresser”. … It’s not me saying it … You can confirm that he’s not?“ And so on.

Consider the likelihood of John Howard when PM being put under such questioning. The shock jocks simply think they can say anything about, or to, Gillard with impunity, in this case under the guise of probing "rumour” and “innuendo”.

With the last parliamentary sitting fortnight about to start, there are conflicting reports about the state of the leadership play. Yes, Bill Shorten is critical – but what’s in his head? When he said this week he believed the PM would lead into the election, everyone focused on why he chose the word “believe”. He keeps insisting he’s sticking with her.

Parliament returns on Monday against the backdrop of a Nielsen poll that morning. Caucus members are atop a powder keg. They see no fuse: Gillard won’t budge; Rudd won’t challenge. But will there be some spectacular spontaneous combustion?

Labor MPs aren’t the only ones on edge.

Watching Rudd prosecute the case against the Liberals over the sexist menu (including his call for candidate Mal Brough to give his fundraiser’s proceeds to the RSPCA) Abbott could wonder whether Rudd might, paradoxically, have more cut through on the women’s issues than has the woman.

The Liberals have an armoury of material against Rudd, on camera and out of the mouths of Labor figures, from the extraordinary onslaught on him in the 2012 challenge. They would also expect there’d be bitterness and even chaos after a switch.

On the other hand, Rudd would bring to the battle with Abbott not only his own popularity but a refreshing of the team. The replacement of the much criticised Wayne Swan with Bowen could sharpen the economic lines. Anthony Albanese, a Rudd supporter who kept his head (in both senses) in March would be deputy PM (a position Swan now holds).

Martin Ferguson could not be brought back, because he’s announced his retirement from parliament. But if Rudd had nous he’d twist (very hard) the arm of the well-respected John Faulkner to make a return to the frontbench, to add some credible lustre to the line up.

Not that a revamped frontbench would have much time to do a lot. Rudd would not necessarily dash instantly to the polls - he’d need to put his own stamp on the agenda. But the election is almost here anyway.

For Rudd and Abbott it would be a return bout of sorts. Abbott didn’t fight an election against Rudd but when Gillard displaced him it was also a scalp for Abbott, who had contributed to his downfall.

On both sides of politics they believe Rudd V Abbott would see Abbott prevail. But it would be much more interesting than Abbott V Gillard.

Then again, we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. We’ve yet to see a result in the Rudd V Gillard epic.