All week long, supporters of Peter Dutton claimed their intentions were only to reunite the Liberal Party. Yes, this was the same party they were tearing apart in an effort to remove Malcolm Turnbull.
One of the chief instigators, Tony Abbott, even went so far as to suggest in a radio interview on Wednesday that he “just wanted to do my best to bind up the Liberal Party’s wounds once we’ve put this episode behind us”. Yes, really.
So what are the chances of peace in our time, given that disunity is death in politics and the Liberals must truly unite if they want to avoid annihilation at the next federal election?
If we take at face value the statements made by some members of the Dutton camp after their humiliating defeat on Friday, everything is hunky dory. From Peter Dutton and Mathias Cormann down, many of the rebels claimed they would unify behind Scott Morrison.
However Tony Abbott emerged from the party room meeting to cryptically say “we have lost a prime minister, but there is still a government to save”.
Then Craig Kelly, who hails from the Abbott faction of the insurgents, walked straight from the party room into a radio studio in Parliament House to declare that not only was it “time to unite behind the new leadership team” but that he expected a “slight reset” of some policies under the new regime.
When pressed on what those changes might be, Mr Kelly defaulted to his favourite Turnbull-era refrain about needing another coal-fired power station or to keep the Liddell station open.
Later on Friday evening, other elements of the Abbott faction were far less coy about their demands. The former PM’s former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, used her cable-TV show to essentially issue a log of claims, barely minutes after the new Prime Minister was sworn in by the Governor-General.
Ms Credlin prefaced those demands by stating that the Morrison government would have to “appeal to blue collar conservatives that would otherwise vote Labor” if it was to have any chance of winning the next election. This was an interesting shift in Ms Credlin’s rhetoric, given she usually argues the Coalition needs to win voters off One Nation, not Labor.
But that was the only change that Ms Credlin made to her usual anti-Turnbull script. According to Mr Abbott’s key strategist, if the new government didn’t make serious policy change then it wouldn’t get the base back. This was likely what Mr Abbott was referring to when he mentioned having to “save” the government.
“The new PM’s big challenge will be to heal the party and sharpen the policy contrast with Labor,” Ms Credlin argued. “The base will demand policy change now, before the election, and not just new faces.”
Ms Credlin also claimed the “new PM can’t afford to keep a former PM out of cabinet,” but “to get Abbott back and win over the base … big policies will have to change.”
This should apparently include ditching the National Energy Guarantee and the Paris emissions reduction target, as well as winding back the migrant intake. And if the new government did not shift on these, the change to a new leadership team would be “new faces with Turnbull’s old policies” and not “the reset the government needs to win.”
Of course Ms Credlin doesn’t speak for all conservatives in the Liberal party, but she’s been consistently well-briefed on what they want and what they’re prepared to do to get it.
It seems fairly clear from these early remarks that the rump of Abbott insurgents will continue to destabilise. This is unsurprising given their singular goal is to have Mr Abbott re-instated as PM.
This leaves the fate of the Liberal Party in the hands of the next-generation conservatives who were manipulated by the Abbott camp to rebel and bring on this week’s spill. Before they let flattery and duplicity lead them onto a path of destruction, Peter Dutton and Mathias Cormann had managed the ambitions of the next-gen conservatives in a way that was productive for the government.
They will need to regroup and find a way to do so again. Otherwise the Liberal Party will be shattered again and again until Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin get their way.