Malcolm Turnbull has successfully launched a pre-emptive strike on his conservative opponents, calling a party room meeting today and calling on his colleagues to vote on a spill motion. The motion was defeated 48-35, leaving would-be challenger Kevin Andrews in the starting blocks.
Angry backbenchers Wilson Tuckey and Dennis Jensen — both strongly opposed to a deal on the CPRS with the government — had announced last night, while Turnbull was holding a bizarre press conference declaring he had won over the majority of his party room colleagues, that they would seek a special party room meeting tomorrow to debate a spill motion.
That would have given conservative forces in the party to settle on a candidate other than stalking-horse Andrews.
With Andrew Robb too ill to be a contender, attention was focused on Tony Abbott, who had declared he would not challenge Turnbull.
This morning, Turnbull sprang his surprise, calling a 1pm meeting at which the party could debate a spill motion, indicating that if the party favoured a spill, he would resign and throw the leadership open.
The move left conservatives flat-footed, with only Andrews indicating he would challenge Turnbull. Tuckey and Jensen moved the motion.
In a pre-meeting press conference, Andrews continued to insist that Turnbull had failed to attract majority support in the party room last night, in effect declaring Turnbull a liar.
Despite Turnbull’s win, the Liberal Party is now more divided than ever, with three Senate parliamentary secretaries, Matthias Cormann, Brett Mason and Mitch Fifield, all resigning this morning, making a Turnbull reshuffle inevitable. Cormann is a prominent climate denialist, and Fifield has also declared himself opposed to the CPRS deal. Mason has also spoken out against a deal.
The trio in effect join Robb on the backbench, after he dropped a bombshell yesterday and declared without warning that he was opposed to a CPRS deal.
It is hard to see how Robb can return to the frontbench once he returns to health, although the backbench would give him greater freedom of action on policy issues, making him a more dangerous opponent for Turnbull.
Moderate South Australian Simon Birmingham is the strong tip for a promotion from the backbench. Birmingham has been highly visible supporter of Turnbull throughout the CPRS battle.
The Christmas break may cool tempers and allow some healing, but the mood of a large minority of the Liberal Party — at least 35 MPs and Senators — is deep anger toward its leader.