Peter Dutton is the favourite entering Friday’s high noon Liberal leadership showdown with Scott Morrison and Julie Bishop but the divisions which have ruptured the party are set to continue, regardless of the result.
With the party at its lowest point since its foundation and about to depose its second prime minister in three years, hard line conservatives warned they would tear the party to shreds if either Mr Morrison or Ms Bishop prevailed.
So close are the votes, Dutton supporter Kevin Andrews postponed a trip overseas on Thursday night while moderate Senator Arthur Sinodinos, who has been absent for many months due to illness, flew in from Sydney.
The chaos also threatened to spark an early election after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said if a spill motion was called, he would quit Parliament, leaving his successor presiding over minority government and exposed to a no-confidence motion.
Four key lower house crossbenchers are refusing to guarantee a Dutton government confidence.
“I made it very clear that I believe former prime ministers are best out of the Parliament and I don’t think there’s much evidence to suggest that that conclusion is incorrect,” Mr Turnbull said, in a swipe at Tony Abbott who has been a key driver of the Dutton challenge and is angling for a return to cabinet.
‘We’ve got the numbers’
Mr Turnbull said “a form of madness” had gripped the party, given it was dumping a leader when it was competitive in the public polls and ahead according to its internal polling.
Based on the latest numbers on Thursday night, moderate sources speculated Ms Bishop would be knocked out first. Ms Bishop, who has been deputy since 2007, was working the numbers hard and presenting herself as a consensus candidate. In the opinion polls, she is much more popular than either Mr Dutton or Mr Morrison.
In a Fairfax-Ipsos poll published in December, 32 per cent of voters preferred Ms Bishop as leader followed by 29 per cent for Mr Turnbull, 14 per cent for Mr Abbott, 5 per cent for Mr Dutton and 4 per cent for Mr Morrison.
Under the system, there will be a ballot among all three. The person with the lowest number of votes will be eliminated and then a fresh ballot held between the two finalists.
End of Bishop’s career
If Ms Bishop is defeated, she is likely to be dumped as foreign minister in what will be a purge of the frontbench by Mr Dutton, and the end her political career.
Out of 85 MPs and senators, Mr Dutton’s camp was claiming about 48 votes, which is the number Mr Turnbull received on Tuesday when he beat Mr Dutton 48-35.
“We’ve got the numbers,” said a Dutton source.
“We’re ahead but where not taking anything for granted.”
The battle for deputy is set to be fought out between Greg Hunt, who is aligned with the Dutton challenge, and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg, who is not part of any ticket and was attracting votes from all camps.
Despite losing the support of the majority of his party, Mr Turnbull is playing hard ball with Mr Dutton and will only agree to a party room meeting at midday on Friday if the Dutton camp can produce a petition with the requisite 43 votes.
Mr Turnbull said if the meeting was convened and a spill motion carried, he would regard that as a motion of no confidence and resign.
Late on Thursday, they claimed to have 42 signatures with six more MPs in support. But they were furious with Mr Turnbull, saying the leadership was decided by secret ballot and this was forcing people to out themselves.
Mr Turnbull offered no sympathy.
“These are momentous times and it’s important that people are accountable for what they’re doing. So when I – if assuming I get that letter…my intention is to hold a party meeting at midday tomorrow,” he said.
‘A very, very significant point’
The biggest threat to Mr Dutton’s run is a cloud over his eligibility to sit in Parliament under section 44(v) of the Constitution because two childcare centres held in a family trust receive funding from the Commonwealth.
In a move to poison Mr Dutton’s run, Mr Turnbull has instructed the Commonwealth Solicitor-General Stephen Donaghue, SC, to have ready by first thing on Friday morning legal advice as to whether Mr Dutton was eligible. The advice was only commissioned on Wednesday afternoon.
Mr Dutton has had his own advice since last year attesting to his eligibility and said yesterday he had received fresh verbal advice from former solicitor-general David Bennett, QC, that he was OK. The advice was not released.
Mr Turnbull said Mr Dutton should not run if the Solicitor-General’s advice cast doubt over his eligibility.
“This is a very, very significant point,” Mr Turnbull said.
“As we all know Section 44 has been a companion of this 45th Parliament. But I cannot underline too much how important it is that anyone who seeks to be prime minister of Australia, is eligible to be a Member of Parliament.
“Because a minister, let alone a prime minister, who is not eligible to sit in the House is not capable of validly being a minister or exercising any of the powers of a minister. So you can understand how important this issue is.”
Mr Turnbull’s fate was sealed when Mathias Cormann abandoned him on Thursday morning. Senator Cormann quit the frontbench and revealed he had told Mr Turnbull on Wednesday afternoon the Prime Minister had lost his support.
This was just hours after Senator Cormann issued an emphatic statement of support for Mr Turnbull.
Amid unprecedented scenes, the government used its numbers at lunch time Thursday to adjourn Parliament for the rest of the day so the number crunchers could get to work.
Labor leader Bill Shorten said Australia was without a functioning government.
‘It is remarkable we’re at this point’
Within minutes, backgrounding had begun against Mr Morrison as NSW conservatives warned of “factional warfare, the likes of which you’ve never seen”, should he become leader.
“If Morrison wins, the (NSW) Right will go all out to destroy him,” said a conservative operative. It ain’t going to be pretty.
“In NSW he’s a leper, he’s not a conservative, he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
“He will be shredded by (Ray) Hadley and the right.”
Mr Turnbull alluded to such threats when he lamented the campaign to oust him.
Without naming names, he savaged radio shock jocks Alan Jones and Mr Hadley who have facilitated the campaign against him, as well as evening commentators on Sky News, including Mr Abbott’s former chief of staff Peta Credlin, who have actively backed Mr Dutton and Mr Abbott.
“The reality is that a minority in the party room supported by others outside the Parliament have sought to bully, intimidate others into making this change of leadership that they’re seeking,” Mr Turnbull said.
“It’s been described by many people, including those who feel they cannot resist it, as a form of madness.
“It is remarkable we’re at this point where only a month ago we were…just little bit behind Labor and in our own polls a little bit ahead, but in any view thoroughly competitive.”