The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy liked to quote an old proverb: “Even nightingales can’t live off fairytales.”
On Tolstoy’s logic, Liberal MPs preparing to vote on Tony Abbott’s future must be dying of hunger. In the past few days they have been asked to swallow a host of fairytales and fantastical imaginings, not just by their current leader but by everyone involved.
The most significant fairytale is that a change of Prime Minister is de facto death for a government.
• Abbott concedes he could lose vote against motion
• Liberal spill: what will happen in the party room
• Spill: ‘I believe we have to have this discussion’
• Mondayitis: how they reacted to Tony’s spill
• Abbott clinging on as leader
That is a risk – it can easily come to overshadow a government’s achievements – but the argument being made by Tony Abbott and his supporters that Labor’s follies should not be repeated is based on a false analogy with Kevin Rudd’s removal.
Several commentators have made the point that Mr Rudd was more popular and that unlike Mr Abbott he was ahead in the polls. These are important differences. But the sharpest contrast is that voters have seen this before.
The power of huge and unprecedented events is that they shift our conception of what is possible in the world. Afterwards, things are never the same.
That is true of horrific events, like the attacks of September 2001, before which the use of planes as weapons was inconceivable. It is true of hopeful events, like the election of a black president of the United States. And it is true of strange, chaotic events like the removal of a first-term sitting prime minister. Time is evermore divided into the period before such a thing was imaginable, and after.
If Tony Abbott is removed, it will be the third midterm change of PM in three terms. To bastardise Oscar Wilde, to lose one Prime Minister is a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness; to lose three inspires only a yawn.
If Malcolm Turnbull becomes PM, this will be his major advantage over Julia Gillard. As the third prime ministerial usurper in five years, his removal of Mr Abbott won’t define his character. It will not be the most important fact about him.
This is why political analogies are always dangerous. Yes, history repeats, but never in precisely the same form.
There are other myths floating around. Mr Abbott has his own personal fairytale, which is that he won’t go quietly and that this fact might keep him safe. It is a calculated move, designed to scare his colleagues, who would rather not have to blast him out. But he’s missing the main game.
Whether or not Mr Abbott resigns or is forced out – and I am certain one will happen eventually – is secondary to what he does next. Will he act as Mr Rudd did, fighting for a return to the leadership, or as Ms Gillard did? I suspect he will have learned from their examples, and thus choose to stay quiet, gaining the long-term gratitude of his party. And I suspect his party knows that.
Mr Abbott also believes he can recover from here. He can’t. Once a leadership death spiral gets this far it is almost impossible to snap out of. Everything Mr Abbott does will be seen through the prism of leadership. Every mistake he makes will bring on a new wave of instability.
The Liberal insurgents have their own fairytale: that this is a grassroots movement that Mr Turnbull and Ms Bishop are powerless to control. Rubbish. This could have ended days ago if Mr Turnbull and Ms Bishop had wanted it to. They would have to have been clear and unequivocal in saying they did not want the job, would not challenge nor be drafted, loud in their condemnation of destabilisation and louder in their support for Mr Abbott. But they were not.
None of that is unethical or even unexpected, but it should not be overlooked.
Perhaps the most damaging fairytale the government is telling itself (and us) is that the spill motion must be voted for immediately for the sake of getting on with governing. The fact that the PM and his supporters have made this argument is a strong sign of their denial.
It is Mr Abbott’s failure to govern – to pass legislation, to negotiate with the crossbench, to take the people with him – that has taken him to this place. The same sense of denial leads to Mr Abbott’s continued claims that the government has failed to sell its policies, without accepting that it may be the policies themselves that are to blame.
If Mr Abbott continues to believe this, there is no hope for him. If Malcolm Turnbull believes this, his reign will be short.
Finally, there is a fairytale being spun to themselves by swing voters, Greens voters, and even some Labor voters, that Malcolm Turnbull will be the Prime Minister they always wanted.
I think Mr Turnbull has every chance of doing well. I think he has a better chance than most of becoming a great prime minister. He may win the next election. But those Greens voters and Labor voters should not forget that he will still be a Liberal PM, and there is only so far he will be able to depart from Liberal beliefs. This will be his greatest challenge: maintaining the sense of authenticity that is his strength, while somehow containing his beliefs within the ill-fitting straitjacket of Liberal ideology.
Another famous Russian writer, Anton Chekhov, famously said that if there is a rifle hanging on the wall in the first chapter, then by the second or third chapter it must go off. If it isn’t going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
That is the stage this leadership drama has now reached. The audience has seen the gun. It’s time for those Liberal MPs still hoping it won’t go off – either on Monday or in coming months – to stop listening to fairytales.
Sean Kelly was an adviser to Kevin Rudd from 2009 then to Julia Gillard from 2010. He is on twitter @mrseankelly