Around the same time Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was delivering his controversial “Liberals aren’t conservatives” speech in London last week, predecessor Tony Abbott was holidaying in Croatia. We know this because a photo of the former PM was taken on location and posted on social media.
This helped to explain Mr Abbott’s absence from our airwaves that week, including his lack of regular appearances on tabloid radio. But unless you’re a regular viewer of Sky News, you might not have realised that his former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, was also missing in action.
Noting her absence on Tuesday night, Ms Credlin’s co-host, Alan Jones, said she’d “taken off” without explaining herself. But instead of grilling his side-kick when Ms Credlin returned to the show this week, Mr Jones commented: “We won’t ask you where you’ve been”.
Perhaps that’s because, according to journalists who were in contact with Ms Credlin that week, she was also overseas. Is it too much to imagine that Mr Abbott and Ms Credlin managed to catch up to plot against Mr Turnbull while they were both away?
It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility, particularly given a report last week that a senior Sky News presenter said Ms Credlin “bragged that she still sometimes briefs Abbott over a conference call in the morning after reading the morning newspapers”. Ms Credlin later denied this suggestion as completely false.
Yet it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Abbott camp is well-rehearsed and well-coordinated. The same messages are promulgated by the usual suspects on a never-ending rotation through the conservative press, radio and television networks.
We all know the refrain: one commentator will claim the latest political issue is a test of Mr Turnbull’s leadership, then another will say something-or-other will split the Liberal Party if the PM continues to neglect the base. Then another commentator will remind journalists how many negative Newspolls the PM has delivered, while a colleague will claim the election is already lost.
The tactic creates a never-ending, white wall of noise designed to suppress anything positive that Mr Turnbull says or does. And it is at least partially responsible for the PM’s flatline opinion polls.
However, Mr Abbott and his supporters are working to a schedule that will require matters to be brought to a head in the next few months. The former PM is reportedly determined to ensure Mr Turnbull’s term as Prime Minister does not exceed his own, which is one year and 362 days. That means the PM’s life is going to get particularly challenging between here and early September, when his tenure approaches the same number.
To make things even more challenging, the Delcons think they can avoid accusations of staging another coup by making the PM so demoralised he will simply stand down and move to the backbench before retiring at the next election.
Such a feat would require considerable planning and collaboration, ensuring that a succession of mini-crises took place to create a sense of urgency in the media and the need to take action within the Liberal party room.
What would such a war plan look like? Firstly, it would attempt to fracture the PM’s remaining authority with party members by positioning the factional war in the NSW Liberal Party as a test of Mr Turnbull’s leadership. This would involve stacking the audience of the convention held to “resolve” the matter, sending out advocates to spruik the Abbott-backed reforms on conservative media, and then heralding the outcome as a crisis for Turnbull because he “doesn’t value democracy”.
The second stanza would require stripping away any kudos the PM may have earned from conservative voters in creating a Home Affairs department by arguing the change is self-indulgent on the PM’s part. This would also involve bringing on a mini-crisis by insisting the “captain’s pick” be approved by the party room, as well as jamming the airways with claims the new portfolio is unwarranted and a waste of taxpayers’ money.
These two dramas should create enough momentum for the third confected crisis to create a partyroom showdown. This would be over the Finkel reforms, and involve a demand for the PM to relinquish his “green” ideology or step aside.
It’s clear these battlelines are being drawn, and the Abbott troops are being worded-up and coordinated for a final clash with Mr Turnbull.