Well that was efficient. Liberal MPs went in at 9am, and it was barely 25 minutes later that Sky — presumably alerted by a text-happy MP — was declaring Turnbull the winner. There was a wait until the result was formally declared: 45-41 to Turnbull, with Julie Bishop re-elected unopposed as Deputy Leader. Journalists milled about, swarming over any MP emerging from the party room.

“A great result for the party,” declared Christopher Pyne, whose job, one suspects, hung on the result. Michael Ronaldson, numbers man for Turnbull, echoed the comment.

Going in, the tip had been that Turnbull, caught on the hop and given only a few hours to cement his support, would fall short. That was Nelson’s gameplan, and it was a reasonable one. The fact that Nelson lost shouldn’t obscure the fact that this was the smartest play available to him.

There was also talk that Nelson was planning a clean-out of his own office, particularly focussing on his chief of staff, Peter Hendy. Clearly, Nelson thought people other than himself were the problem. His party — narrowly — thought otherwise. The sympathy vote, the view that Nelson had not been given a fair crack, wasn’t strong enough against the reality that he needed to be removed for the Liberals to move forward.

At his press conference, attended by a large number of quite chipper Liberal MPs, an aggressive Turnbull indicated that there would be no immediate change in Coalition policy — including on the 5c a litre excise reduction proposal that was the basis for the first leadership flare up following the Budget. He did commit to the retention of the current – and, he claimed, Howard Government — emissions trading scheme policy. He emphasised his relatively poor background, and spoke about a “fair and free” society — they were, he claimed, inextricably linked – and one that would “empower and enable the enterprise of Australians.”

Nelson himself is off to the backbench, as part “generational renewal” he said in an impressive final press conference. He pledged full support for Turnbull and declared himself — not entirely convincingly — satisfied with the loyalty he had got from Turnbull and Bishop. Nelson was his normal relaxed self. Hand it to the guy – he can take a beating and still come up smiling.

It also turns out that not everyone was taken by surprise last night. Nelson admitted that he had spoken with Peter Costello last night before announcing the spill. That might have been Costello’s last chance to grab the leadership, for the time being at least.

Nelson said he thought the spill was the right thing to do, noting that there was going to be no focus on policy issues until the leadership was resolved, and the financial crisis made it more imperative than ever that that happen. He’s right. For now, at least, the Opposition has a good story to tell, unclouded by the incessant speculation that has constituted much of political coverage for the last two months. In ALP Caucus, Julia Gillard, filling in for an absent PM, declared that it didn’t matter who led the Liberal Party. Ah, but it will, Deputy Prime Minister, it will.

Peter Fray

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