Malcolm Turnbull entered this morning’s Liberal partyroom meeting with a Gillard-like strategy — proactively call on a spill and demand his opponent come out and face him. As with Julia Gillard in 2012, it worked — but won’t save him.

Peter Dutton took on his prime minister’s challenge and, while unsuccessful, dealt a devastating blow, attracting 35 votes, or 42% of Liberals. That Dutton could accumulate that many votes in the week since Turnbull was deemed to have achieved a major success in convincing his colleagues to back the now-abandoned National Energy Guarantee illustrates how deep the disillusionment with the PM now runs. With some preparation, it’s not hard to see Dutton shifting the 7 votes he needs.

So it won’t be the end of it. It can’t be the end of it. A PM with the support of less than 60% of his colleagues is a dead leader walking. Gillard managed 70% of caucus in 2012 and lasted another 16 months. Don’t expect Dutton to take anywhere near as long to finish off his target.

Dutton has now resigned, as he should have. What other ministers will follow him, if any, and how quickly, will be the guide to how fast the denouement plays out. A bunch of departures — particularly Scott Morrison and Mathias Cormann — and it could be all over this week. If not, the torture for Turnbull, and for voters, will continue, with Dutton perhaps forced to start attacking from the backbench to settle the matter.

So now we’re into the leadership twilight, like the period after Tony Abbott’s “empty chair” spill early in 2015, a liminal period in which nothing occurs without the issue of the leadership always in the background, the challenger expected to attack at any moment, while ministers go through the motions and maintain the pretence that it’s political business as usual. Voters, however, are likely to reflect not just on the Coalition but on the entire political class and regard it with greater contempt than ever for its self-obsession and apparent disregard for governing in the national interest. 

So the prime minister survives, but governing has gone out the window. Turnbull deserves credit for trying to resolve the issue — it’s the kind of aggressive political act with which he used to be synonymous — but, like Gillard before him, there’s no victory here.

Peter Fray

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