Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop in Parliament on Monday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Julie Bishop’s chances of becoming Liberal leader will improve the longer the issue festers, her colleagues believe.
With the matter on hold indefinitely due to a rebound in the polls for the Coalition and an uptick in Tony Abbott’s fortunes, senior Liberals believe lead contender Malcolm Turnbull stands to lose over time due to an increasingly vitriolic campaign being waged against him by the Liberal Party’s arch-conservative base.
MPs report being flooded with emails from what they believe is an orchestrated campaign involving the Christian right and other similar groups, attacking Mr Turnbull over his position on issues such as gay marriage.
Ms Bishop decided last week that if the leadership was spilled, she would run for the top job rather than be part of any ticket, sources said.
This decision was made after she was approached by colleagues eager for her to form a ticket with Mr Turnbull in a bid to force the issue “sooner rather than later”.
“Julie said: ‘I won’t be on your ticket. If it comes to a spill, I will run’,” a source said.
Conservative commentators once critical of Mr Abbott but now keen to save him have begun piling on the communications minister, accusing him ofundermining Mr Abbott and even leaking information to which he is not privy, such as secrets from Cabinet’s National Security Committee.
Neither Mr Turnbull nor Ms Bishop agreed to representations from the backbench to force the issue this week, by either resigning or challenging Mr Abbott.
Mr Turnbull has emphatically rejected suggestions circulating internally that he sought to recruit Ms Bishop to run as his deputy.
There is little appetite elsewhere in cabinet to pursue the issue as a result of both the polls and the fact that it was agreed after the last spill attempt three weeks ago to give Mr Abbott a fair go.
Cabinet ministers spent the weekend phoning junior colleagues calming things down.
The steam went out of the issue on Monday following the publication of the latest monthly Fairfax/Ipsos poll, which found the Coalition had closed the gap on Labor by 6 percentage points and now trailed on a two-party preferred basis by 51 per cent to 49percent.
There were sharp falls in Labor Leader Bill Shorten’s personal ratings and Labor’s primary vote, while Mr Abbott’s ratings improved and the Coalition’s primary vote rose.
The same movement occurred in the Newspoll published in Tuesday last week and MPs believe a combination of the two polls has killed of any further move against Mr Abbott until at least after the March 28 NSW state election and most likely well beyond the May budget.
MPs who want to see Mr Turnbull succeed believe that the longer the issue drags on, the more damaged he is likely to be by the campaign against him.
Consequently, should the issue be confronted again, Ms Bishop would be in the box seat as a compromise candidate.
Social Services Minister Scott Morrison stood to become either Treasurer or deputy leader had there been a change three weeks ago and remains integral to the outcome of a future move. “He’s in a sweet place at the moment,” said one MP, given Mr Morrison stands to advance regardless of who replaces Mr Abbott.
At the start of Monday’s cabinet meeting, which was to sign off on more troops for Iraq and the dumping of the Medicare co-payment, Mr Abbott had a stern message for colleagues.
“Every day we are focused on doing the right thing by the people of Australia and that’s what they expect.
“They don’t want people in Canberra worried about themselves, they want people in Canberra worried about them,” he said.
Trade Minister and former Liberal Party federal director Andrew Robb reflected the view within the Coalition brains trust that the poll rebound was a consequence of the recent leadership spill focusing the minds of voters who were previously not paying much attention to politics.
“You’re never sure about how some of these elusive band of unnamed colleagues will respond for a while, but I do think the clear intent of the solid dismissal of the spill motion just three weeks ago, showed overwhelmingly that colleagues wanted to see the Prime Minister be given some clear air and the opportunity to get things back on track,” he said.
“And I do feel that the significant turnaround in the polls is also conclusive proof that the voters want that as well.”
Liberals dismiss the theory that the poll rebound was a consequence of voters having already factored in a change to Mr Turnbull.
Late on Monday, Labor seized on costings from the Parliamentary Budget Office that calculated $113 billion in revenue would be lost over the next 10 years as a result of the 30 budget measures stuck in the Senate never passing.
The research was commissioned by MP Andrew Laming, a known advocate of dumping Mr Abbott.
Mr Laming did not return calls and Labor claimed the modelling was commissioned to inform a secret budget strategy being prepared by the Turnbull camp.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten side-stepped when asked on Monday why he believed the polls were tightening against Labor.