(Image: Tom Red/Private Media)

Anthony Albanese is, apparently, a dead man walking. Despite a good Newspoll this week, the Labor leader has been written off by some who say the party is desperate to dump him before a potential early election.

The latest attack piece, from The Australian’s Troy Bramston, is a characteristic mix of assertion, gossip and historical analogy. While Albanese’s leadership has at times seemed confused and anaemic, commentary like this which spells his almost certain demise follows a tried and tested pattern.

There’s the heavy-handed metaphors about bloodshed; the animal imagery; the pumping up of potential leadership aspirants; and, of course, the commentary provided by “nameless sources” keen to settle personal scores. This piece is a classic example of how to foreshadow a political coup.

The embattled leader

Albanese is widely described as “embattled” these days. But Bramston takes things further, declaring the opposition leader’s tenure is “on death watch”.

He’s been penning such claims repeatedly over the last few months, as Albo refuses to budge. In November Albanese’s leadership was on “death watch”; in December it was at a “tipping point” because some right-faction apparatchiks wrote a book; at the end of the year the Labor leader was deemed “utterly complacent”.

The tone isn’t quite as damning elsewhere. But Albo is still a leader who simply cannot catch a break. Michelle Grattan, writing after last week’s cabinet reshuffle, called Albanese’s attempts to compare himself to Joe Biden “desperate”.

Laura Tingle suggested “the vibe of the thing” was simply off. And maybe that’s it. Albo simply isn’t generating election-winning vibes.

‘Sources say

Of course, leadership speculation would go absolutely nowhere without anonymous disgruntled MPs and party hacks sharpening journalists’ knives for them.

Aside from member for coal Joel Fitzgibbon — who last week said leadership rules need to change, and whose beef with Albanese is well-known — no current Labor MP would dare speak out against the boss. But even in anonymity, party rivals can do plenty of damage. The common thread through Bramston’s anti-Albo pieces are claims MPs want Albanese gone. We have no idea if what these sources are saying is true.

There are clear parallels here with the spill that started it all, when Kevin Rudd was axed by Julia Gillard in 2010. In February “some” in Labor were “mutter[ing] in dark proverbial corners” about the PM needing to lift his game or else. By March “some” in the NSW right faction were getting bold enough to tell the media they wanted Rudd replaced with Gillard.

But in other instances, the nameless sources have simply gotten it wrong. In October last year, after the Independent Commission Against Corruption found out about Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s affair with Daryl Maguire, “senior Liberals” told The Australian’s Sharri Markson her tenure was over.

Of course, months later, Berejiklian remains popular as ever, and destined to go out on her own terms.

‘The rising stars

The final ingredient for a coup projection is a good challenger.

In February 2010, the ABC labelled Julia Gillard a “rising star”. She was finally considered likeable enough to be a potential leader should Rudd fall. Within weeks, the Newspoll was crunching her leadership numbers against Abbott. The Australian was calling her the “ambitious deputy” and reporting that the bookies had “serious money” on her replacing Rudd. 

By March, she was the natural successor and Liberals were wondering why she was getting a “free ride”. For three months, those suggestions about a coup bubbled away, emboldening Gillard and weakening Rudd.

Right now, the game is all about puffing up the two clearest contenders: Tanya Plibersek and Jim Chalmers. They have been described by the Oz as sharks circling the Labor leadership. Plibersek, at least, was a minister in the Rudd-Gillard years and Bill Shorten’s deputy. Nobody (aside from people who watch Insiders for fun) has heard of Chalmers. 

Still, the shadow treasurer got a long profile in the Oz last year. Last week, Plibersek was writing op-eds in that paper about Ben Chifley and getting some pretty gushy coverage about her leadership credentials in return. She’s also got a regular radio spot on 2GB — a clear play for the Sydney suburbs. 

Perhaps all they need from Albo is one more slip up.