Labor Party warlords have begun to outline a succession plan in Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s seat of Lalor, with Senator David Feeney leading all-comers to stake a claim to the seat at a byelection following a devastating federal election loss.

Feeney — elected in the 2007 Ruddslide from the No.3 Senate “death spot” — will almost certainly be forced from Parliament from the same ballot position at next federal poll, due in August 2013.

But what some Victorian Labor insiders have dubbed the “Silvertop rule”, the factional chieftain will be offered the “first available” Victorian lower house federal seat in the aftermath of an expected obliteration at the ballot box.

That seat could well be Lalor — it’s considered extremely unlikely the PM would stick around after suffering an ignominious defeat (or as a backbencher in the event of a successful Kevin Rudd challenge), triggering a byelection battle next October in the same manner as Anna Bligh.

Feeney’s emaciated “rebel Right” factional base was formally excluded from preselections under the state party’s 2009 stability pact. It was once thought he could contest Wills following a Kelvin Thomson resignation in a strings-attached peace deal with national right forces aligned to Senator Stephen Conroy. But that scenario has now receded rapidly from view.

A spokesperson for Thomson told Crikey this morning that the sitting member will “be going around again next year and in future elections as well,” adding for good measure that “Kelvin’s definitely running 100%.”

Multiple Wills factional players, including a former state MP, told Crikey this morning that the “heat had gone out” of bombs lobbed by Feeney apparatchiks from their Sydney Road bunker after tension peaked in October 2010 over this battle for control of the Merri Community Health Service, dutifully reported by Sunday Age state politics gun-turned Jakarta correspondent Michael Bachelard.

One senior operative called the “Feeney for Lalor” bid “very plausible”, this morning. “The only other option is for a last-minute necking [in Wills] by the national Right.”

Harry Jenkins’ Scullin was once mooted as another possibility, however the Left is unlikely to agree to any deal to shoehorn its bete noire into that seat without massive and sustained compensation (and that’s if Jenkins pulls the pin at all). A Left candidate would trounce Feeney if a preselection were held.

Labor currently holds Lalor by a booming 22.2% — its fifth-safest seat behind Gorton, Scullin, Wills and Gellibrand. It is controlled by Bill Shorten and Stephen Conroy’s Labor Unity faction under the stability pact that unites the Socialist Left, the mainstream Right and the conservative shop assistants’ union.

Feeney’s forces have been effectively dealt back in to the pact — but one potential sticking point is Feeney’s inexplicable and continuing support for sacked Health Services Union chief Kathy Jackson, who is considered a rat of the highest order among the cabinet and the upper echelons of the trade union movement.

Feeney and Shorten were arm’s-length allies in their Young Labor days in the early 1990s with each eager to preserve their own respective campus fiefdoms — a testy dynamic that persists to the present day. Jackson served as a co-office bearer with Feeney on the Melbourne University Student Union and the duo remain friends.

If the Lalor chop-out is realised, a Senate nightwatchman would need to be fingered by the state party to serve until June 30, 2014 — a move previously enacted at state level when ministerial quitter Evan Thornley and Theo Theophanous upped sticks.

An extremely unlikely spanner in the works could come if Shorten lost his safe seat of Maribyrnong in an apocalypse, forcing him to contest the comparatively-safer Lalor that he controls. On its current primary vote of about 30%, Labor would be reduced to a rump in the House of Representatives, but should hold on to its Victorian crown jewels.

Key Feeney acolyte and ALP national conference star Stephen Donnelly did not return calls this morning.

Meanwhile, nominations for general Victorian Labor federal preselections will open at the end of the month.

Peter Fray

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