It was probably inevitable that Julie Bishop would run for the Liberal leadership last week. And after 11 years as someone else’s loyal deputy, it should have made sense for the Liberals’ second most popular politician after Malcolm Turnbull to step up into the role.
But in reality, Ms Bishop never had a chance. Just as she was never really a Liberal leadership contender in 2015, the odds were stacked against her in 2018.
In September 2015, when Mr Turnbull was gearing up to challenge Tony Abbott for the Liberal leadership, there was talk Ms Bishop might make a run for the top job. The rumour was short-lived, with Ms Bishop choosing to run only for the deputy’s role when the coup finally took place.
Last week Ms Bishop decided to cast off the mantle of perpetual deputy and finally put her hand up for the top job, but attracted only 11 votes and was dispatched in the first round of voting.
This outcome was mostly to be expected. There were three things that counted against Ms Bishop becoming Liberal leader in 2015, and by last week those impediments had grown to four.
The first hurdle was the most obvious: the male-dominated Liberal Party was unlikely to elect a woman as leader. The blokes in the party machine tend to preselect men, leading to a male-dominated Liberal party room that tends to elect men to leadership positions.
One day the party might elevate a woman in the iron maiden mould, such as a Bronwyn Bishop or Michaelia Cash, to the leadership. But Ms Bishop didn’t fit that mould because she’s a moderate, or as her conservative detractors liked to say ‘Malcolm Turnbull in a skirt’. That was her second problem.
The third challenge was that Liberal MPs at the federal level don’t often elect a leader that isn’t from either NSW or Victoria. In fact, they’ve only ever done it once, with South Australian Alexander Downer.
While this might seem like an arcane reason, it’s simply one of those ‘iron laws of arithmetic’ that we’ve recently heard so much about. The federal Liberal leadership has traditionally been held by an MP from either NSW or Victoria because the more populated states simply have more seats in Parliament and more votes in the party room.
Peter Dutton, a Queenslander, was only a contender because he came from the next most populous state, and was able to rally a few votes from the major states because he wasn’t a woman or a moderate.
Ms Bishop’s fourth hurdle became clear after phone messages between members of the Liberals’ moderate camp were leaked to the media on the weekend. According to those messages, the foreign minister’s colleagues were not only concerned she couldn’t beat Peter Dutton in a head-to-head vote, but that some members of the Dutton camp might vote for her in the first round to knock Scott Morrison out of the running.
As a result, Ms Bishop was abandoned by her colleagues, with only 11 MPs voting for her in the first round. And a conservative man from NSW was elected Liberal leader.
For now, she doesn’t seem inclined to lash out at her fellow Liberals for treating her so poorly.
She could have resigned from Parliament along with Mr Turnbull, making it necessary for the new Morrison government to secure agreements with pragmatic crossbenchers such as the independent Cathy McGowan and the Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie.
But in a gracious farewell media conference on Tuesday, the former most senior woman in the parliamentary Liberal Party advised she would move to the backbench and remain the Member for Curtin, noting she had the overwhelming support of her constituents.
This move could be a convenient pitstop until Ms Bishop is given a glamorous ambassadorship or appointed as the next Governor-General. It could also be a play for time, to ensure the Bishop forces in the Western Australian Liberal Party have the best chance of manoeuvring another moderate into Curtin before the 2019 federal election.
Perhaps when that happens Julie Bishop will consider her debt to the Liberal Party (and her fickle colleagues) will have been repaid in full.