Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

While Scott Morrison was in quarantine at The Lodge, locked in an urgent national cabinet meeting over the vaccine rollout, the Nationals were tearing themselves apart. Barnaby Joyce is now deputy prime minister-elect, winning a leadership spill he spent the weekend denying would happen.

Absurdly, Michael McCormack stood up in the prime minister’s chair at question time this afternoon, hours after getting rolled, with Joyce yet to been sworn in by the governor-general.

“Numbers haven’t been my friend today,” McCormack said.

But there’s been a sense of inevitability about McCormack’s demise, who became Nationals leader in 2018 after Joyce resigned under the cloud of sexual harassment allegations (allegations Joyce vehemently denies). Joyce challenged McCormack last year, but fell short. This time, a party room dissatisfied with McCormack’s failure to stand up to the Liberals fell behind the former leader.

Joyce’s return may be triumphant for him, but could cause discomfort to the Liberals. Firstly, those sexual harassment allegations remain unresolved. Anne Webster and Michelle Landry, both regional Coalition MPs, said female voters in the bush might be uncomfortable with Joyce’s return.

“I hope I come back a better person,” Joyce told media this afternoon.

As a backbencher, Joyce has repeatedly put himself at odds with the Coalition leadership. Last week he called for the Murugappan family — Tamil asylum seekers recently removed from detention on Christmas Island — to be allowed to stay in Australia.

“I know this is going to leave me offside with other people in my party,” he told Sunrise at the time.

His return has already given supporters of the family hope, and will undermine the Morrison government’s attempts to seek a short-term, politically-palatable solution to the issue.

In May, Joyce told Crikey he was uncomfortable with the Coalition’s big-spending, “Labor-lite” budget.

“I can’t change my position about debt when I’ve been speaking about debt my whole political career,” he said.

He’s advocated for the government to do more to prevent Julian Assange’s extradition.

But the biggest problem could be on climate. Any attempts by the Morrison government to make even a vague, tentative, pseudo-commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 could be vigorously opposed by Joyce.

His return has been backed by Nationals MPs who believe Michael McCormack, of all people, hasn’t done enough to defend coal.

The Nationals’ implosion has come at a shocking time for the government. They’re struggling with the vaccine rollout, and facing another hotel quarantine outbreak in NSW. News this morning that Morrison used his Cornwall trip to do a bit of won’t go down well with voters who might have to wait years to see family.

Less than a year out from an election, the Morrison government’s favoured narrative of stable, competent pandemic leadership has been attacked from within their own ranks.