OK let’s start with a little bit of very rough maths. The vote to turf Abbott from the LNP leadership went 61 – 39 in his favour, plus one “informed informal” vote (according to Philip Ruddock) and one absentee.
It was allegedly a “secret” ballot, although exactly how secret it can be when you’re required to write ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on a piece of paper while crammed shoulder to shoulder with your party colleagues is open to question. The likelihood of someone dobbing you in for voting against the boss must have kept at least some doubters onside.
The backbenches number 60 odd. Assuming for the purposes of argument that all Abbott’s ministry voted for the status quo, 40 of those backbenchers didn’t vote for him. Two thirds of his own backbench want him gone.
Turning to the 40 or so Ministry members, the proportion of supporters to detractors would inevitably be skewed towards Abbott. Some, like Dutton, Brandis, Abetz, Pyne, Andrews, and Hockey will stick with him even if he goes off his head and declares himself Prince Regent, because, frankly, they are pretty useless and have no other choice. Without him they’d be on the backbenches tomorrow, if not sooner. Bronwyn Bishop would be unlikely to survive as speaker. And Abbott will of course have voted to keep his job.
Of the rest, it’s not hard to see 10-15 as ‘detachable’, given the right incentives, e.g. if an actual candidate was standing. 51-49 is therefore probably a truer picture of the real support for Abbott at the moment. He can’t perch on such a narrow ledge for long.
He could buy a little time by throwing Credlin under a bus, but could he cope without her? And who on earth would replace her? Sinodinis?
He might try a reshuffle, to knock out some of the aforementioned dead wood, but they are his strongest supporters. He can’t remove his best performers, but they’re also his biggest threats. Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop are hanging back for now, but you can clearly see them fingering their knives under their togas.
Otherwise Abbott is vulnerable to events outside his control. A loss in NSW could trigger another coup attempt. So could another budget as cruel and unfair as the last: but the party probably won’t wear a fairer one. And what about Malcolm Turnbull?
With only one realistic alternative leader (Bishop is a second-rater who only looks good because she’s surrounded by stupid – the one fragrant flower in the onion patch), the party is in a bind.
Malcolm Turnbull, and the small-l liberal policies he stands for have hardcore members clutching at their pearls. They’re not fond of him personally, either. Unlike Abbott, who is a fairly simple, not to say crude character, Turnbull is smooth, complex and glossy, and inclined to be condescending to the less gifted (which, let’s face it, is most of the rest of the party). He is popular with the public, so he could probably keep the LNP in power, but his price might be, say, an emissions trading scheme, equal marriage?
On the other hand, if the party saddles him with the current IPA-led policy portfolio, Turnbull’s advantage with voters is severely diminished, if not erased altogether. The LNP yet to grasp that the problem isn’t with the press cycle, or purportedly lefty journos, or even Abbott himself, unlovely though he is (did ever a man look less sexy in Speedos or lycra?).
The problem is the policies to which they continue to cling as tightly as Abbott’s speedos: the program to destroy what is uniquely Australian and make us over as a clone of the USA, with low taxes (especially on businesses), and few or no free public services or publicly owned businesses. A sink or swim, slave or starve philosophy utterly at odds with core Australian concepts John Howard so cleverly invoked, while simultaneously undermining: mateship, and a fair go, for example.
Will Turnbull embrace this program and sell his soul for the Prime Ministership? And could he then sell the program to the voters? Perhaps. LNP stalwarts are hoping for a Pope Francis moment. However, it hasn’t taken long for Catholics to discover the same old bitter doctrines and authoritarian tendencies under the snowy white robes. If Mal accepts the challenge, how long will it take the voters to see through him, too?
I suspect he will indeed grab for the prize and tell himself he can easily be a bit more ‘liberal’ once he’s got it. And so it will all come down to timing. Time enough for Abbott to destroy himself (and some more chunks of the fair go), so that when Mal arrives the people will hail him as their saviour; but not enough time for them to realise that, like Francis, he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And vote in another wrecking government like this one, with a smoother, sleeker face.
Abbott is done. But not just yet. Unless, of course, he makes another dumb mistake . . . .