Supporters of potential Liberal challenger Peter Dutton are saying he has the numbers to challenge Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull – as an explosive new poll claimed a dive in the government’s popularity.
Mr Turnbull hosted a cabinet meeting in a private dining room at Parliament House on Sunday night, amid rampant speculation Mr Dutton was considering a challenge.
In what could prove an ominous sign, Mr Dutton reportedly made a late appearance.
Soon after, his camp began briefing journalists that their man now had the support and the inclination to challenge.
That blow landed just as the latest Fairfax-Ipsos poll put the Coalition’s two-party vote at just 45 per cent, to Labor’s 55 per cent. In just a month, the Coalition had lost a whopping four points if the poll is accurate. (It was quickly disputed by some commentators).
Earlier in the day, Tony Abbott had demanded war. And a war he may get.
“To have a chance of winning the next election, the Coalition must create a policy contest on energy, not a consensus,” Mr Abbott said on Sunday.
Such is the open enmity in the Liberal party, the former PM even included an ominous “@TurnbullMalcolm take note” in his Twitter salvo.
Unusually, frontbench minister Christopher Pyne all but admitted there were leadership ructions.
“There are some people who don’t support the current leader and that is quite obvious,” Mr Pyne told reporters as he arrived for the dinner.
“The overwhelming majority of my party room are 100 per cent behind Malcolm Turnbull, as is the cabinet. We have the right policy mix and if we are united we will win the next election.”
The Prime Minister was originally to host the dinner at The Lodge. But the venue was switched to Parliament, reportedly to avoid the optics of ministers being harried by journalists to affirm their support for the PM as they walked in the door.
On the agenda of the crisis talks was, reportedly, yet another tweak to the National Energy Guarantee, as well as the ‘nuclear option’ of ditching the government’s signature policy – big-business tax cuts – in order to blunt Labor’s attacks.
It was only a few days earlier, on Tuesday, that Mr Turnbull emerged looking triumphant from his party room, declaring his colleagues had “overwhelmingly” supported the NEG.
By Sunday, the policy was in tatters.
The plan had been to set in legislation an emissions target of 26 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030.
“We’re certainly not going down the path of regulation,” Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg had told reporters.
Mr Turnbull had condemned the regulation route in question time.
A few backflips later, the new target will indeed be set by regulation, although an attempt to change it would trigger an inquiry by consumer watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
“Any government who wants to change this has to tell you up front what the cost will be,” Mr Turnbull said in a video message on Sunday.
Labor fired back.
“The life expectancy of so-called ‘rock solid’ policy commitments by Malcolm Turnbull is about 72 hours,” Shadow Climate and Energy Minister Mark Butler said.
That backflip may have been counterproductive, with reports it only boosted the number of backbench dissidents – who now fear it will be easier for Labor to increase the target when it next wins government.
As of Sunday night, there were no leaks on the fate of that other, and perhaps more explosive, policy retreat – the big-business tax cuts – on which Mr Turnbull has expended enormous political capital.
The cuts were widely blamed for the Coalition’s losses in the recent federal by-elections.
One of the key dissidents, Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly, told the ABC on Sunday he would be “slightly disappointed” if the government dumped the policy.
Even if the government keeps the cuts, they are unlikely to pass, as Labor and the Greens oppose them and the crossbench refuses to budge.
So, a tough Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday loom for Turnbull, these being the remaining sitting days for this session of Parliament.
The baying for his blood has reached fever pitch among conservative commentators, especially radio host Ray Hadley, News Corp columnists and Peta Credlin on Sky News.
It was energy policy that hastened Mr Turnbull’s downfall as opposition leader in 2009, when Mr Abbott used internal dissent over his leader’s backing of the Rudd government’s proposed emissions trading scheme to seize the leadership.
The Coalition party room meeting will meet on Tuesday.
It may prove significant that Mr Dutton, on Saturday, wrote on Twitter that “the Prime Minister has my support”, but did not promise not to challenge.
In relation to media stories today, just to make very clear, the Prime Minister has my support and I support the policies of the Government. My position hasn’t changed from my comments last Thursday.
— Peter Dutton (@PeterDutton_MP) August 17, 2018
Mr Abbott may indeed get his war.