THE body language between the Prime Minister and the Umno president has warmed up over the last few months.
Their relationship at one stage was as chilly as winter but it is now like summertime, sunshine and everything nice, as evident at the Barisan Nasional convention earlier this week.
There were lots of handshakes, man hugs and chummy exchanges as Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi went out of his way to shine the spotlight on Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob (pic).
“PM, we trust you,” said Ahmad Zahid during his speech as the Barisan chairman.
It was such a contrast to the shoddy way the Prime Minister was treated during the Johor election.
But all that is in the past and it seems like Ismail Sabri is now embraced as “one of the boys”.
Ahmad Zahid is such a political animal. He knows when to pat you on the shoulder or rap you on the wrist and he has played the party like a violin.
The convention was to rally the morale of Barisan partners as well as a show of strength to signal that the coalition is a government-in-waiting.
However, going by the speeches of key Barisan figures, it seemed like they are also trying to jostle the Prime Minister into calling for a general election this year.
Barisan advisor Datuk Seri Najib Razak, in admitting that he erred in not calling for an election in 2017, was basically telling Ismail Sabri not to make the same mistake by giving the Opposition extra time to tear him apart.
Waiting for the perfect time turned out to be disastrous and by the time Najib went to the polls, 1MDB had grown into a monster issue and his wife had become hugely unpopular.
Indeed, Ismail Sabri is now the prime target of the Opposition and the attacks are quite personal although his personal life is quite uncontroversial.
He does not have a problematic wife. In fact, his wife is a genuinely sweet lady who prefers to stay in the background and who, until her husband became prime minister, would drive herself to the market or buy groceries.
His detractors have zoomed in on his lifestyle, implying that he is extravagant while the rakyat struggles with inflation and cost of living issues.
His trendy and pricey Burberry shirt, said to be a birthday present from his fashion-designer son-in-law, has generated all kinds of cynical memes.
Critics lampooned the presence of his family members during his official visit to Japan. The family had apparently planned to adjourn for a private holiday after he finished his official duties.
More recently, his expensive wristwatch became an issue and all this is only the start.
Everything and anything can become an issue in the age of social media.
Besides, being prime minister is akin to living on the top of a hill where everyone can take potshots.
Ismail Sabri is keeping everyone on their toes about the election date. When with Umno, he says he will not wait a second longer if the time is right. When outside, he seems in no hurry, citing concerns over inflationary issues.
“I came away from the convention no clearer about when it will be. No one could tell us if it will be this year. One moment I think it is soon, another moment maybe not so soon,” said supreme council member Datuk Seri Johari Ghani.
Despite assurances from the top leaders, many in Umno believe that people around Ismail Sabri are the ones pressing him to go a full term. They think these people are just starting to enjoy life in the corridors of power.
Power is a seductive thing and some ministers are also not sure if they will still be in the Cabinet after the election.
For instance, when Ahmad Zahid asked those at the Barisan convention to rise to their feet if they favoured election this year, a couple of ministers and a future ambassador remained seated.
“The element of surprise is important in war. No prime minister is going to tell us when he will go for it. He will keep all of us guessing,” said former Kapar division chief Datuk Faizal Abdullah.
What is clear at this point in time is that the Umno top five will discuss the best time for a general election.
Will Ismail Sabri consult Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin as well? The Prime Minister has never once criticised Muhyiddin because he is where he is today thanks to Muhyiddin and he does not want to come across as ungrateful.
He does not need the green light from Muhyiddin but there will be some consultation as a matter of courtesy.
No prime minister has had to walk the tightrope like Ismail Sabri.
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was in a government of strange bedfellows but Ismail Sabri is in charge of a government whose partners had fought each other tooth and nail in two critical state elections.
However, there could be hints whether the general election will be this or next year.
The first is related to the impending Cabinet reshuffle. If it is just a minor exercise to replace Primary Industries Minister Datuk Zuraidah Kamaruddin, then the general election could be soon because there is no point in making big changes if polls are around the corner.
However, a substantial reshuffle could indicate that Ismail Sabri is looking at 2023.
Another hint could be an official visit to China when the Chinese superpower resumes normalcy from the pandemic.
China is a big trading partner and the economic benefits of ties with China has a spillover effects on politics.
“China is the main factor in our long-term recovery, there are no two ways about it. But if the PM goes, he needs to bring back something tangible,” said entrepreneur Datuk Mohd Omar Mustapha.
Ultimately, it goes back to the Umno top five which includes the Prime Minister, and they should know when the time is ripe to go back to the people.