Internal conflict in the Victorian Liberal Party has had a good run in the media lately, with a stream of anti-Baillieu leaks to The Australian, features in both The Australian and The Age last Friday, and now a long piece in this morning’s Age reporting what one Liberal source describes as “a declaration of war” by Baillieu supporter Peter Clarke.

At one level, the stories show how poorly the media understand the Liberal Party — witness Jo Chandler’s ability to write at length about the Warrandyte preselection without once mentioning Phil Honeywood, the local warlord and factional loose cannon who actually determined the result.

Of course it’s true that the Victorian party is deeply divided between the ruling Kroger-Costello group and its opponents, whom commentators persist in calling “the Jeff Kennett camp” but which could perhaps now be called the “Baillieu group”. And there is no doubt that some of Clarke’s criticisms of the ruling group are justified.

But by taking Clarke at face value, the paper misses the real story: that Baillieu’s own supporters, Kennett last week and now Clarke, evidently think (or care) so little of his chances at November’s election that they have already started the blame game in public. The real loser from the last fortnight’s bickering is Baillieu himself: the more that MPs and the organisation are distracted by internal matters, and the more they present an image of disunity to the public, the less likely it is that he will make even the modest electoral gains that once seemed possible.

Perhaps he thinks that his charisma will surmount these difficulties, or perhaps he thinks he can somehow escape personal responsibility for an electoral debacle. But the lesson of the last fortnight is that his supporters don’t care either way: they’re totally focused on regaining control of the organisation at next year’s state council.

Everyone expected all along that the Victorian Liberals would break into open warfare on 26 November. That’s how politics works: it was just the same (only with the positions reversed) four years ago. By starting the war early, however, Clarke and Kennett have foreshadowed a very nasty few months to come.

Peter Fray

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