Six days after triumphantly walking into the Prime Minister’s courtyard having navigated his energy policy through the hostilities of his coalition partyroom, Malcolm Turnbull is on the precipice.
- Some within the party want Peter Dutton to lead and give it a conservative hue
- Some prefer Tony Abbott to lead to clear out moderates within the party
- It would take two Liberal MPs to bring on a leadership spill
Last Tuesday was not exactly a Neville Chamberlain peace-in-our-time moment, but the PM’s relief was palpable.
He had got his National Energy Guarantee (NEG) past his colleagues by a healthy margin; for all intents and purposes, his approach on energy policy had been endorsed.
But if war teaches you anything, it is that numbers do not count in an insurgency.
Mr Turnbull is now the target of full-blown guerrilla warfare.
The insurgents may have varying endgames, but their first ambition is clear: to kill off Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership.
So what happens now?
What next — or who — is not agreed by the dissidents.
Some want Peter Dutton to take over, to sharpen the differentiation with the Labor Party and give the Liberal Party that distinctly conservative hue craved by the “base”, that thinning band of greying members.
Some want Tony Abbott back, even if it means first rendering the Coalition Her Majesty’s Opposition once again to “clear out” Turnbull and other moderates.
This is a horror show that has nothing to do with the presumed trigger point, energy policy.
Look at what the last few days have taught us on how the rebels respond.
They rail against the Turnbull-Josh Frydenberg plan to legislate the Paris climate targets, and when the PM capitulates, he is criticised by the same mob for flip-flopping.
So what would a Dutton prime ministership look like? And how long would it last?
It might not last long if Mr Turnbull responds to a coup by quitting politics. The tumult that would follow could see the Parliament tumble into a general election, by necessity if not by design.
Unlike Malcolm Turnbull, or Kevin Rudd for that matter, Peter Dutton would not come to the leadership fully formed in the public’s eye.
He is the tough border protection man, the scrapper who loves a fight with the Left. He is relatively mono-dimensional compared to many other previous leadership aspirants who often carefully curate a broader image.
Some Liberals say that while he may help the Coalition’s stocks in Queensland, he might have trouble winning favour in NSW and Victoria, notwithstanding his tough-on-gangs rhetoric.
What happens next is up to Mr Dutton.
He does not have to challenge for the instability to become terminal. It would take two Liberal MPs to bring on a leadership spill. There would not have to be any declared candidates before that point.
Even if Mr Turnbull were to recontest the leadership against an empty chair it would be a devastating blow to his authority. This happened to Tony Abbott in February 2015. He was gone as PM by September.
This is a crisis with a familiar pattern.
Malcolm Turnbull can only hope he is the one to break the decade-plus period that has not seen a sitting PM contest a second election.