If the motion to spill the leadership of the Liberal Party leadership succeeds, the main prospect as a challenger is and has always been Malcolm Turnbull, who has transformed himself to a milder, more patient and less pushy political figure, writes Annabel Crabb.
From the jungly commando warfare that has occupied the Coalition over the last two torrid weeks, a familiar battle-cry has now clearly emerged: “If it leads, we can kill it.”
This afternoon, two WA backbenchers have posted their intention to move, on Tuesday, for a spill of the Liberal Party leadership, five-and-a-bit years and two elections and four prime ministers on from its memorable capture by Tony Abbott with the heart-stopping margin of one single vote.
The message: No leader is safe any more. Not in their first term, not ever. The threat has evolved.
Internecine political warfare has changed a lot. In the old days, it was slower. You’d start off with a challenger and go from there. Sometimes, you’d start with a challenger – Peter Costello, say – and then nothing would happen for eight years.
On one memorable occasion in 2007, John Howard even asked his Cabinet whether they thought he should go. By the time they answered (“Yes”), he was out of his consultative patch and the moment was lost.
These days, you don’t even need to start with a challenger.
These days, dissatisfaction plus a multi-headed media hydra will get you to crisis point even if – as in this present situation – none of the purported leadership alternatives has sought to bring things to a head.
Can Tony Abbott survive on Tuesday? Possibly. Can he survive long-term? Hmmm. Put it this way: Barnaby Joyce last week bet his house on Tony Abbott still leading the Coalition at the next election. He would want to be checking his mortgage insurance.
Mr Abbott has just made a terse appearance at Sydney’s Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices to declare that he and his deputy, Julie Bishop, have spoken and have agreed to stand together – leader and deputy – to contest any motion to spill.
“We are not the Labor Party,” he further and uncontroversially declared, before disappearing from the shortest press conference I can ever recall seeing.
Ms Bishop’s absence from her leader’s side does not necessarily mean that she has been tied up somewhere by Peta Credlin; she has been in Adelaide, playing awkwardly with preschoolers in the company of a sub-ebullient Christopher Pyne.
The question of whether Ms Bishop’s support would continue in the event that the spill motion succeeds is still unanswered.
But the full support of Ms Bishop has never, in any event, been a guarantor of ballot triumph; she supported Brendan Nelson all the way to his defeat in 2008, and she supported his successor, Malcolm Turnbull, right up to the point at which he was knocked over by Mr Abbott in late 2009.
In any event, the main prospect as a challenger is and – realistically – has always been Malcolm Bligh Turnbull.
He has not declared himself to be a candidate. He has been studiously cautious about canvassing the issue with colleagues.
If internecine political warfare has changed, then Malcolm Turnbull is one jungle-dweller who has evolved as effortlessly as Schwarzenegger.
The old Malcolm, who strutted and fretted under Brendan Nelson’s leadership and whose ambition to take over was so red-hot it was palpable across a crowded room, is nowhere to be seen these days.
New Malcolm is milder, more patient, less pushy. Less prickly; the “metadata” fiasco, which last year saw the PM and George Brandis both stumble rather badly on some technical detail within Turnbull’s portfolio rather than just doing the obvious thing and including him in the discussion, would have sent Old Malcolm into Rage Orbit. But he helped to fix the situation, and refrained from making a fuss.
Internally, Turnbull has been reported as encouraging colleagues to give the PM more time. That in itself is not a qualification for saintliness; more time would suit Turnbull.
Annabel Crabb is the ABC’s chief online political writer. She tweets at @annabelcrabb.