Make no mistake about it, destabilisation of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership has begun in earnest and he knows it.
It began on Friday with media stories of panicking Liberals urging Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton to challenge for the top job.
The so-called “energy wars” are merely a pretext for an increasingly worried number of MPs in marginal seats and the Liberal National Party organisation in Queensland.
None are more worried than the LNP president there, Gary Spence. Shattered by the party’s disastrous primary vote in the Longman by-election, he was said to be urging his MPs – who sit as Liberals in Canberra – to dump Mr Turnbull for Mr Dutton. (Later on Monday, Mr Spence denied he had canvassed or emailed MPs.)
Giving the push momentum, besides extremely unflattering headlines in the big circulation Murdoch tabloids, is Monday’s Fairfax-Ipsos poll showing the government heading for a thrashing.
Not all Liberals are convinced Mr Dutton is the saviour. One interstate MP thinks the idea is “madness”. And even in Queensland, another says the “ego that is pushing Dutton to consider challenging is the same ego who thinks he can turn things around”.
But it is not primarily about turning things around; it is about “saving the furniture”. That is, containing the losses. Whatever the negatives for Mr Dutton, they are being judged as less of a problem than Mr Turnbull – who, according to several, is “toxic in Queensland”.
A sure sign of panic in the top office is the cancelling of a meeting of the Liberal party room tomorrow. It has already been postponed from last week – and the chief government whip who acknowledged that it would be held now says it won’t.
One Liberal insider believes Mr Dutton is five members short of the 43 votes he needs to topple Mr Turnbull. Despite Mr Turnbull claiming his cabinet and party room are behind him, he is apparently not prepared to test it. If he does pull the trigger, half the cabinet is already in the Dutton camp.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott has been urging other MPs to back Mr Dutton. At the doors of Parliament House on Monday, he claimed the current row is about policy and not personalities.
But his constant changing of demands on policy gives a lie to that. It is unlikely that Mr Turnbull’s latest capitulation – refusing to legislate or regulate an emissions reduction target of 26 per cent – will do anything to dissuade the malcontents from their course of action.
They have the numbers to demand a special party room meeting this week. If they don’t, it is because they think they need more time to convince the waverers that the government’s cause is lost under Mr Turnbull.
They are counting on a couple of worse polls, especially Newspolls, to do the trick. Their antics are designed to ensure this outcome.
Either way, Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership is being short-circuited.