So after a weekend of furious speculation in the News Ltd papers about Nelson’s leadership, we are left … where?

Not really anywhere different to where we were last week, or last month, or even at the start of the year, except in one crucial regard.

Nelson has been under the hammer from the get-go. The media, to generalise outrageously, didn’t like that he managed to block what they saw as the inevitable ascension of Malcolm Turnbull. And Nelson’s style didn’t help him. Consultative, earnest and overly personal are all qualities easily mocked (and we happily mocked them). So from early on, the media, doubtless egged on by some of the more enthusiastic Malcolmtents, have been setting up tests for him. The apology. The Budget reply. The inevitable by-elections as former Ministers drifted away. You get the feeling even if Nelson passed them all with flying colours they’d keep inventing them until he tripped.

Nothing has changed, even as the chagrin at the defeat of Turnbull has been replaced by the realisation that Nelson really is a dud, one of Downeresque proportions. But Nelson isn’t about to be replaced. No challenge is imminent. He still has to face the Budget and the by-elections. If he’s a Weekend at Brendan’s-style corpse, he’s being supported on one side by the desire that he get a fair go, and on the other by the need to let him, rather than a new leader, absorb all the punishment Labor is currently dishing out.

But as usual when it comes to leadership speculation, the media acts as a perfect echo chamber, amplifying even the tiniest whisper into headline stuff. Some of it is simply frustration at being in Opposition. “Everyone’s still hurting,” said one former minister. “I know I am.” And no one was putting their name to anything, although there were plenty of people apparently willing to dob in a holidaying Tony Abbott. But even Andrew Robb’s purported gaffe about no one listening to the Liberals isn’t news. Who listens to Oppositions four months after a change of government?

But what has changed is that the Liberals are starting to worry about the impact of Nelson on the party’s base. A senior Liberal told Crikey that this was the key issue. It’s been clear for some time, they said, that Nelson’s demise was a matter of when, not if. But his lack of appeal is starting to bleed into the base, and this is where it gets serious, even years away from an election. It’s not just the Liberals’ core support that could be affected, but their membership – already falling and greying – and their ability to raise funds, already under threat from the Government’s electoral disclosure changes, and whatever else comes down the pike after Faulkner’s Green Paper.

Nelson’s performance may be starting to affect the party’s long-term viability, and that won’t be tolerated, regardless of when the Budget or the by-elections are. When Nelson’s end comes, it may not be for any public reason, but because too many MPs have realised the party itself is in danger of irreparable damage.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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