Barnaby Joyce’s image as a maverick made his career but it could soon end his leadership as he enters a ballot on Monday very slightly behind and fighting concerns about his judgement.
Supporters and opponents both say Mr Joyce’s polarising leadership style will play a larger role than climate policy in Monday’s contest.
On Sunday evening MPs were predicting a close-run thing with the party’s deputy, David Littleproud, narrowly on track to win the top job, and Darren Chester third.
Campaign post-mortems have suggested top Liberals unsuccessfully sought to have Mr Joyce play a non-speaking part in the election because his personal popularity was low enough to harm the Coalition’s national vote.
Mr Joyce responded defiantly, pointing out that the Nationals retained all their seats (they gained one upper-house spot due to the quirks of a deal with the Liberals).
“Where was that standard when he went for Michael McCormack?” one MP asked; the party’s previous leader also held all seats in a poll but was deposed by Mr Joyce last year.
“We should get him just for that.
“We all know how it’s going to be with him; is that who we want at the (negotiating) table?”
The Nationals have not shared the larger parties’ culture of leadership instability or tolerance for political dirty work. That makes events in its party-room much more difficult to predict or even establish conclusively after they happen.
Leadership of the Nationals is routinely declared vacant after elections a key distinction drawn by MPs between this spill and two led by Mr Joyce.
Change on climate?
Whoever becomes the Nationals leader will be presented with a rare opportunity to seize on the Liberal Party’s much-diminished position in a renegotiation of the Coalition.
Mr Joyce last week did not reaffirm the net-zero pledge on carbon emissions the party made in the last Parliament, sparking speculation he might seek to lead the Nationals away from the consensus on climate change.
But he led negotiations on net zero last year only to vote against adopting their outcome.
The Nationals voted to adopt the commitment despite opposition from Mr Joyce and MPs such as Bridget McKenzie.
Public opposition to the pledge centres in Queensland but the vote for it was won 12-9.
Coal enthusiast Matt Canavan, a friend of Mr Joyce’s, and Llew O’Brien and new LNP MP for Flynn Colin Boyce openly favour dumping the plan.
But MPs from other states mostly said the party should keep its word or seek to trade support for more job guarantees and funding.
Some MPs think the approach of Mr Joyce (who took over negotiating the existing deal on climate after winning back the leadership) is needed to carry the party faithful across the line.
“Only one of them knows anything about conviction,” one MP backing Mr Joyce said.
But Mr Joyce contends with a party room now without dependable supporters, including former Country Liberal Sam McMahon and controversial Queensland MP George Christensen.
When the party room meets at 10am MPs will vote on rules including whether incoming Senators, whose terms have not begun, are allowed a vote. And many believe they will tip the balance of the vote.
Incoming Senator for New South Wales, Ross Cadell, was once a campaign manager for Mr Joyce, but the political operative won preselection after cutting a deal some Nationals said could sway his vote. He declined to comment.
Between the pro-Barnaby and anti-Barnaby camps lie the MPs who will swing the ballot, as NSW MP Andrew Gee did last year by voting to topple Mr McCormack with seeming reluctance.
One MP now supporting Mr Littleproud said the vote had not thrown up “life or death issues” but was the only acceptable time for the party to put its most recent term in government, and Mr Joyce, behind it.
Speculation suggests job offers are essential for any serious Nationals leadership campaign; much was made of a post-spill reshuffle last year.
Mr Chester says the party should do more to reach women and younger voters and that “quite extreme” views hurt the Coalition’s chances.
The Victorian MP was sacked by Mr Joyce after the last leadership spill, during what he said was an “incoherent” phone call.
Keith Pitt has clashed often with Mr Joyce, including over the latter’s personal life, was also dumped following the last spill only to return to the cabinet soon after.
Mr Pitt has attacked net zero repeatedly but said recently that he expects the party to retain the pledge despite its election showing.
Despite a complicated personal history, the former resources minister was one of the earliest MPs to declare his support for Mr Joyce after the election.
Mallee MP Anne Webster has declared for the deputy leadership pitching “calm and collected” leadership representing all regions. She will run only if Mr Chester’s bid does not succeed – both are from Victoria and Ms Webster wants the state represented within the party leadership.