The Coalition is facing the prospect of another destabilising leadership coup with the Nationals reportedly poised to topple Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack.
Barely two months after Malcolm Turnbull was deposed as prime minister in a chaotic leadership spill that saw Scott Morrison assume the Liberal leadership, factions with the National Party are now pushing to follow suit.
Mr McCormack claims he has the “absolute” support of the Nationals partyroom, despite claims former leader Barnaby Joyce could try and topple him within days.
His political allies, however, are bracing for a move on his leadership as soon as Monday.
“The fact is I have the majority support in the National Party,” Mr McCormack told reporters on Thursday.
“Not one National Party member has come to me and said they’re dissatisfied with anything.”
Mr McCormack said he does not expect a challenge to his leadership, saying several colleagues have called and texted him in the past 24 hours to praise the job he is doing.
The Deputy PM’s claims come after Mr Joyce took to the airwaves Wednesday night to deny he is behind the challenge, but say he was ready to return to the leadership if his colleagues asked him.
Mr Joyce’s Queensland-based backers are counting numbers and believe they have enough support to challenge Mr McCormack or ask him to stand down, Fairfax media reported.
Queensland Nationals MP Michelle Landry urged her colleagues to calm down, insisting no one was interested in in a spill right now, but adding Mr Joyce would one day regain the leadership.
“I’m sure at some stage in his career Barnaby will be leader again,” she told Sky News.
It has been just two months since the Liberal leadership crisis, and the National Party has long presented itself to voters as the political party of internal stability.
Mr McCormack is accused by some National colleagues of being weak towards the Liberals and failing to connect with voters.
Speaking Thursday, Mr McCormack acknowledged “one or two” Nationals colleagues were briefing the media against him.
Late Wednesday night, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud, who has been viewed as a future Nationals leader, ruled himself out of running in any spill.
“There is no chance of a leadership challenge and even if there was I would not be interested in any positions,” Mr Littleproud said.
Asked if he wanted the leadership, Mr Joyce told Sky News: “I have always said that if anything was offered to me, I would take it.”
“It is faux modesty to say if you are offered a job, you’ll turn it down. That is garbage, otherwise there wouldn’t be a cabinet minister, there wouldn’t be a leader, there wouldn’t be a deputy leader,” he said.
“If it came up, and it was offered to me, I would take it, but I am not touting for it, I am not collecting the numbers for it.”
Mr Joyce asserted he had “not made one call to one colleague” canvassing votes.
“There’s been no secret meetings in my room, there’s no WhatsApp group, there’s no dinner conversations going away to a restaurant,” he said.
Under the Coalition agreement between the Liberal and National parties, Mr Joyce would be guaranteed a return to the cabinet if he reclaimed the leadership, forcing Mr Morrison into a frontbench reshuffle.
Mr Joyce resigned as Nationals leader and deputy prime minister in February, three weeks after news broke of his affair with former staffer Vikki Campion and the break-up of his marriage.
Senior Nationals have rallied round Mr McCormack, with Mr Littleproud, Veterans’ Affairs Minister Darren Chester, and Victorian MPs Andrew Broad and Damian Drum voicing their support.
“The only ones talking about it (a change in leadership) are the media,” Mr Broad said.
The timing of the leadership destabilisation, days before Saturday’s crucial by-election in Mr Turnbull’s former seat of Wentworth, has reportedly angered the Nationals’ Liberal colleagues.
“They have lost their minds,” an unnamed Liberal minister told Fairfax Media of the plan to remove Mr McCormack.
But Morrison claims he is not distracted by the Nationals leadership chatter.
“You guys can focus on the politics all you like, I’m focused on what the Australian people are focused on,” Mr Morrison told reporters in Canberra.
“Politics others can go and bang on about. I’m not interested in that. I’m not distracted by it.”
Mr Morrison this week urged Wentworth voters to back Liberal candidate Dave Sharma for the sake of stability in Parliament, an argument likely damaged by any Nationals spill.