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Ooops, did Peter Dutton do it again? This time last week the Immigration Minister set tongues wagging when he appeared to confirm that Malcolm Turnbull could suffer “death by Newspoll”, just as his predecessor did.

Yet by the weekend, the stumble-prone cabinet minister had crab-walked away from those comments. Was this a case of over-reach by the PM-presumptive or just another one of the former plod’s brain farts?

Thanks to the Abbott camp and their media enablers, Dutton has become the conservatives’ overnight sensation. He is now apparently considered by both the commentariat and serious political journalists, perhaps even the man himself, as a contender for the Liberal leadership.

So it matters what Dutton says.

Last week the Immigration Minister appeared to agree with conservative megaphone Ray Hadley that if bad Newspolls continued for the government then Turnbull would have to pass the baton to someone else. Hadley argued this was “because [Turnbull] raised the spectre on that day of Newspoll being a measure of the fact that he was challenging for the prime ministership.”

Dutton replied it was a fair point and “Malcolm Turnbull wouldn’t step back from that point”.

Whether intended as such or not, Dutton’s comments were seen as a serious ratcheting-up of the conservatives’ campaign against Turnbull. A buzz began in Canberra as less experienced journalists began to trill “it’s on”, even as older scribes remained unconvinced.

[Abbott-Turnbull: it’s on, but there’s a third player]

The Abbott camp did its bit to stir up speculation, with their Lycra-clad man using his taxpayer-funded annual “charity fundraising” event to make numerous media appearances, during which he criticised Turnbull for doing a deal with Nick Xenophon to get corporate tax cuts through the Senate and assured supporters he “may well sign up to go around again” at the next federal election.

The Sky News evening echo chamber redoubled its efforts to motivate the younger conservatives who continue to back the current PM to jump ship, claiming an election still more than a year away was already lost under Turnbull. The delcons then whipped themselves into a frenzy of Turnbull-denunciation when the Liberal Party’s formal review of the 2016 federal election was strategically leaked to the media.

Perhaps Sky News producers were hopeful that, by inviting Dutton to appear on one its weekend political chat shows, the minister would repeat the implied death sentence that he had pronounced for the PM earlier in the week.

[LEAKED: Tony Abbott’s Pollie Pedal bicycle trip schedule]

Regrettably, at least for Sky News, Dutton used the opportunity to either back away from those earlier comments or clean up after himself — depending upon whether one favours the conspiracy or stuff-up interpretation of the concession to Hadley.

Knowing the program is watched by (little more than) weekend-shift political reporters, the man once famous only for making off-colour jokes directly underneath a boom mic didn’t hesitate in unequivocally setting the record straight.

Dutton reminded his perhaps disappointed interlocutors that Liberal prime ministers had reversed poor polling positions before, such as John Howard in 2001, who led the Coalition to victory six months after registering a 35% primary vote.

Incidentally, Howard pulled off an even more impressive feat in 1998, when his government rose from a primary vote of 34% in June to win that election only three months later.

Accordingly, Dutton confidently claimed, “We have the ability to turn the polls around … under Malcolm Turnbull,” and “This government can win the next election and win it well”.

[All of the times ‘no undermining, no sniping’ Abbott has undermined and sniped in the past four months]

The key to whether Dutton originally misspoke can perhaps be found in other points he made during the same infamous interview with Hadley.

The minister noted that the government needed to turn the polls around, but that it had to make tough decisions that are “not always popular”. This would suggest he was trying to defend Turnbull’s poor polling rather than using it pull him down. As they say in the classics, with defenders like Dutton, who needs enemies?

There is another hint in that original interview that suggests Dutton’s brain might not have been fully engaged before he deployed his mouth that day. Noting the need for tough but unpopular decisions, the self-appointed heir apparent claimed voters would ultimately recognise that such decisions were made for the right reason.

That certainly wasn’t the case with Abbott’s budget in 2014. And with Labor poised to depict anything done by the Coalition in this year’s budget as unfair and out of touch, there’s little to suggest Dutton’s outdated political wisdom will apply in 2017.

Peter Fray

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