Julie Bishop has told her Cabinet colleagues, including Prime Minister Tony Abbott, she will not challenge him for the leadership and is not calling backbenchers to round up support.
Ms Bishop made the statement during a Cabinet meeting in Canberra on Tuesday afternoon, which has been called by Mr Abbott to plan the Government’s agenda for 2015.
Mr Abbott has been battling to quash speculation that his leadership is under threat, triggered by growing concern in Coalition ranks about his poor personal polling and the loss of conservative governments in Victoria and Queensland.
The most likely contenders for the leadership are Ms Bishop, former leader Malcolm Turnbull and frontbencher Scott Morrison.
The three are known to be in discussion about the party’s woes.
On Tuesday afternoon – two hours after the Cabinet meeting began – Ms Bishop’s office released these quotes:
“I am not campaigning for the job of prime minister, I am not ringing the backbench asking for support,” the Foreign Minister told Cabinet.
“I am not counting any numbers, I will not challenge the leader.”
While the statement indicates Ms Bishop will not be the instigator of any leadership spill, it does not rule her out of the race.
She could stand if another MP moves to open the leadership positions.
Her statement also does not lock in her support behind Mr Abbott.
Treasurer Joe Hockey, who left the cabinet meeting to talk to reporters about the Reserve Bank’s 25-point interest rate cut, appeared convinced of the foreign minister’s loyalty.
“I have no doubt at all that Julie Bishop is absolutely 100 per cent supportive of the prime minister,” he said.
Cabinet has been meeting in a special extended gathering which will include the full ministry on Wednesday.
Mr Abbott will host a BBQ for his frontbench colleagues on Tuesday evening in his courtyard at Parliament House.
Earlier on Tuesday he declared it was “Back to Work Tuesday” and repeatedly sidestepped questions about a reported exchange with Ms Bishop on the weekend, in which she refused to give him a commitment that she would not challenge him for the leadership.
“Julie and I – we’re friends. We are part of the leadership team,” Mr Abbott said.
“We support each other. We always have and we always will.”
The prime minister’s standing has been battered by the Prince Philip knighthood and other policy missteps, which some MPs have blamed for the Liberal National Party losing office in Queensland at the weekend.
Mr Hockey said he’d had no conversations about a change of leadership with Mr Turnbull or Ms Bishop.
“If there were to be a change of leadership, it would mean, what, six prime ministers in eight years? I mean, come on.”
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said government policies were to blame for the coalition’s malaise.
“The best advice I could give on behalf of Australia is drop your GP tax, drop your $100,000 degrees, drop your cuts to families and drop your cuts to pensions,” he said.
An Essential poll published on Tuesday found one in four voters supported Mr Turnbull to lead the Liberals, while 21 per cent backed Ms Bishop and 11 per cent supported Mr Abbott.
Among coalition voters Ms Bishop was the most popular.
-ABC, with AAP