In strictly formal terms, the Prime Minister’s future will be determined by the Liberal party room, perhaps on Tuesday, perhaps at a future date.
The practical reality, however, is that it now lies firmly in the hands of a man who has no vote in the party room, no party status and one vote at elections. His name is Chris Mitchell, he runs The Australian, and he now finds himself — not uncomfortably — in the position of prime ministerial king-maker.
If and when Mitchell turns on him, the Prime Minister’s position will become politically untenable. As Abbott and his colleagues understand, painfully, no other person in Australia holds that power.
This is not a story about Murdoch conspiracies or abuse of media power. It’s simply the cold, practical calculus of Australian politics and media at its current juncture.
When Mitchell, with the support of his proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, and CEO Robert Thomson, decides the time has come to abandon Abbott — and they must be getting awfully close to that moment — the sheer momentum of that decision will create a fait accompli for Liberal parliamentarians. Not because The Australian has a large audience of marginal voters, but because of the perception — which has now become reality fuelled by perception — that if the paper moves forcefully against Abbott on its news and editorial pages there will be 18 months of hailstorms that, at least in the eyes of Liberal politicians, could spread into the News Corp capital city newspapers where the marginal voters live.
A strong prime minister with widespread party support could possibly withstand that kind of hailstorm, but not a dead-man-walking who is stumbling daily from controversy to controversy.
Mitchell (who lives for power), Murdoch (the supreme pragmatist) and Thomson (a brilliant journalist who even dresses like an undertaker) will pivot from Abbott not only because they know he is faltering, but because it’s an article of faith at News Corp to back winners. Which means determining the next winner and swinging behind him or her ahead of the curve.
Liberal MPs know this movie all too well. It happened in 2013 when Mitchell turned on Kevin Rudd, who, like Abbott, was his good friend. And Liberal MPs know, in their position of extreme weakness, the prospect of more than a year of shellacking from News Corp’s flagship and possibly metro dailies would be a full-strength cyclone, not a hailstorm.
The omens for Abbott are not good. Last Saturday, The Weekend Australian unleashed its attack-dog reporter John Lyons onto the PM and his chief of staff in a package of stories, splashed across page 1, that must have felt like a kick in the groin to the PM. After all, it was Lyons who first revealed the dysfunction inside the Rudd government that ultimately led to the demise of two Labor prime ministers.
The PM desperately needs to keep Mitchell on side, which is why his brute aggression on issues like human rights and terrorism — both bete noire topics at The Australian — suggests he knows the script.
The question is, will he still have a role in that production?