Flat White

Is Turnbull planning a lightning strike against Abbott?

7 July 2017

10:51 AM

7 July 2017

10:51 AM

The Tony Abbott insurrection against the moderate overlords of the parliamentary Liberal party continues.

‘I am a member of the government and it has always been the Liberal Party tradition that backbenchers can speak their mind on policy issues,’ Abbott told his local Manly Daily newspaper this week. ‘I am just doing what is perfectly within the rights of a backbench member of our party, which is to speak out in support of the values and traditions which have traditionally been our party’s.’

Abbott’s insurgency on Liberal policy, membership and factional funny business has rattled Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.  Having tacked the Coalition to the centre-left, lagging in opinion polls, dependent on unreliable and self-serving allies like Christopher Pyne and having no clear policy values of his own, Turnbull looks more like an impotent and tormented King Kong atop the Empire State Building, attacked from all sides by fighter planes all piloted by Abbott.  Everywhere Turnbull goes, he is dogged by questions about ‘that gentleman’ Abbott, and whatever he wants to say is drowned out by Abbott’s static.

The rightness of Abbott’s cause is not the issue.  His campaign and policy manifesto reflect the views of the Liberal member and supporter base, a far more conservative and principled constituency than the parliamentary party.  He is correct to say the Turnbull government has moved too far to the left of those it expects to vote for it, seeking approval from progressives who will take what’s offered, yet never vote for the Coalition.  If the Liberal leadership was open to a grassroots vote, Abbott would win convincingly over Turnbull.

Writing here this week, Paul Mitchell is right in theory: if Turnbull had any political sense and understanding of people he would being Abbott back into Cabinet, deploying his talents in common cause and putting him on the leash of collective responsibility.  But the time for that was right after the election, not now.  Turnbull could have done it then with grace, but now bringing Abbott in from the cold would appear weakness.  Abbott is pressing too hard, too fast.

But I’m suspecting it’s not a return to Cabinet that Turnbull and his coterie may have in mind for Abbott.

On Sunday, Turnbull said he would not stay in Parliament if he lost the Liberal leadership, a clear hint to Abbott as to what Turnbull believes he should have done – notwithstanding that in 2010 Turnbull rescinded his own decision to quit after himself being deposed.  Mind you, had that rule applied we also would never have had the Liberal golden years of the Menzies and Howard governments.

If Turnbull is to be taken at his word, and if he believes he has decisive party room numbers, he could set up a lightning strike against Abbott.  What if, returning from his G20 jolly next week, he calls an extraordinary out-of-session meeting of the Liberal party room, spills the leadership and recontests it on the basis of mano a mano, winner-take-all, with the loser quitting Parliament?

On those terms, it would be almost impossible for Abbott to decline the thrown-down gauntlet without losing face and credibility, and if he lost it would be harder still to stay on in Parliament.  He will have been blitzed by a Turnbull showing far more political tactical nous than he has ever shown.

Turnbull hasn’t the political smarts or the bottle, some may say. Yet desperation can prompt even the timidest and weak to fight to save themselves.

If he is to ensure his political survival, Abbott must anticipate a surprise Turnbull counter-attack at any time.  He needs to be prepared to both win and lose a sudden leadership ballot called by Turnbull.  Abbott’s strength is the grass roots, not the party room, but the grass roots don’t have a vote in a Liberal leadership context.

This could come to a head sooner than people think.  Turnbull is cornered and increasingly desperate as the bad Newspolls mount up: something has to give.  Abbott needs to be ready.

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