Brendan Nelson’s bid to end the destabilisation of his leadership is a bold move, and immensely risky. It is unlikely to succeed, but if it does, Nelson will — however briefly — have the Liberal leadership on his own terms. And he will be punish those whom he believes have undermined him.

You have to acknowledge it: however poor an Opposition Leader Nelson has been, the bloke has guts and, unexpectedly, some political smarts. This took everyone by surprise — even senior Liberals, who were asking what was going on when they were summoned to a special party room meeting at 6.30 last night.

In retrospect, everyone – everyone — was saying he had to do it, to “clear the air”. We’re all wise after the event. But it doesn’t mean it didn’t take nerve and nous to bring on a spill. At least Nelson is master of his own destiny, and if he fails, he will fail on his own terms.

So chalk up Nelson 1, press and colleagues 0.

But Nelson is doing more than just seeking to clear the air. He has, for the first time, demanded the leadership on his own terms. He made clear to colleagues that if he continues in the leadership, policy will be much more his prerogative. Under Nelson Mark II, it seems, there’ll be less of the destabilising party room consultation that marked the initial period of his leadership. In particular, he told colleagues that he would insist on a Coalition policy that an emissions trading scheme would be conditional on an international agreement – the position he failed to get backing for just a few weeks ago – and that he wanted the Government’s bill ending discrimination against same-sex couples passed intact.

Nelson’s Liberal Party will, it seems, be warm and dry. Like the planet will eventually be under such an ETS policy, but that’s a debate for another time.

Nelson also told his colleagues that, should he win, he will be punishing disloyalty by taking an axe to his frontbench. This by common agreement means that, should Nelson win, Tony Abbott, who has been unable to shut the hell up for weeks about the leadership, will be sacked or demoted. Other shadow ministers will also fall to a vengeful Nelson, who warned them last night, without naming them, that “he knows who they are”.

But guts won’t be enough. As of late last night, it was thought Turnbull had the numbers, but that they were more fluid than expected. Nelson’s courage was attracting admiration, but reality will probably have set in by 9.00 this morning when the party room meeting starts. By indicating a more conservative position on climate change, and by making it clear he will punish anyone who had undermined him, Nelson has probably driven some votes to Turnbull.

He is, however, making the best of a bad hand. If he wins, he will have bought himself perhaps six months of grace before the speculation mounts again. That’s what Simon Crean got in 2003 after he challenged Kim Beazley to put up or shut up in June – he lasted until December. And if Nelson wins, he will have punished the likes of Abbott who have undermined him, and he will have freed himself of the control of the party’s Right.

Problem is, however, that each of those factors is a reason why he will attract fewer votes than back in November, when he only won by 3 votes.

Still, it’s not clear at this point who has the numbers. Neither Nelson nor Turnbull — nor their colleagues — would want another tight contest that would simply perpetuate the tension within the party. And that’s probably another reason why Nelson will struggle. As is the fact that Turnbull has kept his head down while Peter Costello has undermined Nelson with his book-selling antics.

Either way, the spill is the right thing for the Opposition and the right thing for Nelson. He deserves to go down fighting. This will be a respectable end to a shambolic leadership.

Peter Fray

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