On Tuesday night, around 130 of the Liberal Party faithful will gather to celebrate the 19th anniversary of the election of Australia’s second-most successful prime minister.
In an exquisite piece of political symmetry, former Liberal Party staffers will pay homage to John Howard, the 75-year-old former PM who’s been recuperating at home after a health scare.
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Cabinet ministers and Liberal backbenchers will join the shindig, which kicks off around 7.30pm in the Liberal Party’s official meeting room, in the midst of Parliament House. The event was planned months ago but the timing is delicious.
Just a few hours before drinks start flowing at the Howard bash, Liberal MPs will convene in the very same room to discuss the fate of Tony Abbott, a protégé of Howard’s and a man whose place in the Liberal pantheon seems anything but assured.
Daily, the embattled PM has been forced to fend off claims he’s a dead man walking and that many of his closest supporters now don’t believe he can survive. Even on a trip to New Zealand these past few days, Mr Abbott was hounded by questions about his chances of survival – some of them coming from NZ journalists.
It seemed the momentum towards a likely change was growing stronger towards the latter part of last week. And yes, there is a chance – albeit slim – that Tuesday’s party room meeting will be Mr Abbott’s last as leader.
One scenario doing the rounds is that some disgruntled Liberal MP will leap to his or her feet and declare that Mr Abbott clearly has lost the support of a majority of his colleagues and simply has to go! And this just three weeks after he narrowly survived a leadership spill, initiated by two maverick West Australian MPs.
It is just too hard to determine the odds of another spill occurring at Tuesday’s meeting. Liberal MPs seem as confused as anyone about how to sort out their current woes.
The latest Ipsos poll, published in Fairfax papers, shows the Coalition has improved its position and now narrowly trails Labor, 49 per cent to 51 per cent, on a two-party preferred basis. Critically, the Coalition primary vote is up four percentage points, from 38 per cent to 42 per cent.
But the poll also contains sobering news for Mr Abbott with voters yearning for Malcolm Turnbull to take over, rating the Communications Minister ahead of the PM on a range of attributes.
Despite this, you can be assured that Mr Abbott will use the Ipsos numbers to dig in and to try and persuade his colleagues that the worst is behind them.
I doubt too many will buy this, however. Indeed, the odds have been shortening that Liberal MPs are preparing to turf out the man who brought them to power 18 months ago.
Too many have been told by their constituents that the Prime Minister is political poison and now believe his position is unrecoverable.
But neither is there consensus on who should replace Mr Abbott – and that plays into the PM’s hands for now.
Mr Turnbull is the strong favourite and has strategically distanced himself from some of Mr Abbott’s more recent blunders, such as the ham-fisted attempt to blacken the name and reputation of the Humans Right Commission and its president Gillian Triggs.
The Turnbull-for-PM campaign appears to have unstoppable momentum, despite the misgivings of his colleagues who recall his stint as opposition leader during 2008/09.
Deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop was reported by News Corp’s Sunday papers as definitely putting up her hand to become PM in the event of a spill. Like Mr Turnbull, Ms Bishop is an excellent networker and has been the Government’s standout performer since its 2013 victory. Ms Bishop would be far more acceptable to the hard-core conservatives who view Mr Turnbull as a danger to their creed.
But the West Australian doesn’t have Mr Turnbull’s public profile and her previous experience in domestic portfolios wasn’t a happy one.
So, as federal MPs arrive in Canberra for the start of another parliamentary week, it would seem that Tony Abbott will survive as the PM. But there is a chance of a party room coup, a small chance.
Perhaps the only certainty this week is that John Winston Howard will be cheered and applauded when he appears on Tuesday night, one of the Liberal Party’s most venerated former leaders and a man whose instinct for the political middle ground stands in stark contrast to the current mob.
Steve Lewis has been reporting politics from the Canberra press gallery since 1992 and is the co-author of the best-selling political novel, the Marmalade Files and its sequel, the Mandarin Code. He is a senior adviser to Newgate Communications.