NSW Liberals close to Legislative Council powerbroker David Clarke have warned another outbreak of party infighting could wreck the conservative-moderate power-sharing arrangement if Clarke is defeated tonight in a preselection by David Elliott.

Elliott is the stalking horse of former Clarke protégé Alex Hawke, who has turned against his mentor and is leading a campaign to unseat Clarke with NSW Liberal president Nick Campbell.

Ninety preselectors will gather tonight to determine Clarke’s fate in the north-west metropolitan province.  The numbers are tight, and as Crikey revealed on Tuesday, the Clarke camp may need to rely on support from Liberal moderates to fend off the Campbell-Hawke forces.

The Clarke camp has said that moderate support tonight under the power-sharing deal nutted out between the camps in 2008 will help forestall a likely return to the civil war that plagued the party before the 2007 election.

Without moderate support, however, predictions of “World War 3” might well prove correct, with deals between the moderates and conservatives taken off the table.  MLC Catherine Cusack’s spot at the top of the Legislative Council ticket might be under threat, with all three winnable position on the ticket in play in the absence of any agreements.

Moderate support for Clarke is likely to also see Richard Quinn, who is challenging moderate Greg Pearce for his Upper House seat, withdraw, and Robyn Parker, who has left her MLC spot for a tilt at the Legislative Council in Maitland, given an easier run.

The Campbell-Hawke assault on Clarke had its origins in a swift and cleverly executed turnover of delegates in Clarke’s preselection in late 2008 by Hawke, with most of the targets under the belief that Hawke was operating with Clarke’s imprimatur.  Instead, Hawke removed or displaced nine preselectors and installed his own nominees, delivering an 18-vote turnaround that transformed Clarke’s preselection from comfortable to very challenging.

Campbell also resisted pressure from Opposition leader Barry O’Farrell to bring Clarke’s preselection forward and get it over and done with last year. There are also suggestions of sinister practices at Liberal party headquarters, including the erasure of the party membership lists in the Bella Vista branch in Clarke’s province. Some even suggest Campbell is the real power behind the scenes, with Hawke as the public face and weapon against the “Howard Right”.

Campbell’s pursuit of the perpetrators of the Downfall video continues to antagonise opponents, particularly as he is said to have agreed with then-leader Malcolm Turnbull and O’Farrell that the investigation would be conducted by federal director Brian Loughnane rather than by Campbell.  Meanwhile, the investigation into the more serious events at a meeting at Hawke’s office on September 30 last year, where police were called by Hawke, lies motionless on the desk on state director Mark Neeham.  Opponents say Hawke refused to accept new members who were Clarke supporters, and there are 20 witness statements contradicting Hawke on Neeham’s desk, going nowhere while a YouTube parody is pursued relentlessly.

Hawke’s quest to knock off his former mentor — strongly opposed by much of his party, including his leader Tony Abbott — may yet have major repercussions for the NSW Liberals, who face not one but two elections in the next 12 months.