It’s now confirmed: the Duttonites managed to secure their 43rd signature this morning with just hours to go, so a Liberal party room meeting will proceed at noon where Malcolm Turnbull is expected to step aside. Peter Dutton will likely face Deputy Prime Minister Julie Bishop and Treasurer Scott Morrison in a contest for the prime ministership and the reigns of the most bitterly divided major party since the 1950s.
Events will play out very differently depending on the result. A Dutton victory would be a big win for the hard right, News Corp and 2GB. Dutton would be under pressure from them to purge the moderates, but wiser heads will counsel a more Howard-like approach of conciliating them by offering them ministries. Liberal moderates have previously displayed a willingness to lock in behind a conservative leader in the name of unity — that’s what they did with Abbott after 2009, and he rewarded them with government in 2013. However, Ken Wyatt has already signalled that, due to Dutton’s 2008 boycott of the Stolen Generations apology, he would have to consider his position in the party.
Both a Bishop victory or a Morrison victory, however, would perpetuate the current cycle of relentless destruction by the Abbott forces and their media allies. Both are viscerally loathed by the Abbott camp as traitors, despite neither behaving badly in the lead-up to Abbott’s 2015 ouster. Morrison might have a greater chance of rebuilding bridges burnt back then; Bishop, however, is seen as a female version of Turnbull — too moderate, and suspiciously popular with the electorate. And, of course, she may trigger a deep-seated misogyny within the right in a manner similar to how Julia Gillard triggered it.
All three would face similar challenges post-victory: uniting a party that has engaged in civil war, negotiating a new agreement with the Nationals, maintaining the confidence of the House of Representatives having lost Malcolm Turnbull and thus their parliamentary majority, and retaining his seat in a by-election unless they decide to go to the polls this year. Of the three, only Morrison has substantial experience in the hard work of the budget and economic policy (Bishop had a turn as shadow treasurer in 2008 and was a disaster). Bishop’s role under Abbott and Turnbull was as foreign shadow/minister, in which role she was free of the pressures and hard scrutiny that a domestic portfolio brings, allowing her to cultivate a jet-setting image in an area where voters pay no attention.
If Dutton or Bishop wins — and maybe if Morrison wins as well — there’ll also be a new deputy, who will get to pick their portfolio; common sense suggests none of the three will want a major reshuffle with the possible need to head to the polls sooner rather than later. But much of that will depend on what promises have been made by, or extracted from, each of them. We know the Dutton camp has been promising ministries to lock in support, and is said to have promised a senior portfolio to Abbott, but Morrison has the prize gig of treasurer to dangle before a key player.
The whole process will start around 12.15pm or a little earlier this afternoon.