Turnbull: too left to be right for the Liberals?

There’s more than just Tony Abbott standing between Malcolm Turnbull and the PM title. If he wants the top job he’ll need to contend with the Liberals’ hard-right faction – and time is running out.

It would be unwise to assume it’s only a matter of time until the undeclared Liberal leadership contender Malcolm Turnbull becomes prime minister.

That’s not to suggest the Liberals won’t finally come to accept it’s time to replace the shambolic pugilist Tony Abbott – for they must, if their Government is to survive.

The problem for Turnbull is there are differing survival instincts at play within the Liberal Party, with some MPs focused more on protecting the Government’s hard-right agenda than its re-election in 2016. And the more time these hardliners have to resist Turnbull’s re-ascension, the better chance they have of succeeding.

These MPs are horrified at the thought of Turnbull becoming prime minister. They know the ascendency of the man who has audaciously continued to flaunt his progressive views since being removed from the leadership would be an undeniable repudiation of everything they had achieved (or still hoped to achieve) with Abbott at the helm.

The anticipated lurch to the left under Turnbull would essentially signal the Liberals’ submission to the community’s rejection of the Abbott Government’s past 17 months in office; including the budget and the budget emergency narrative, the hardline opposition to a carbon price and climate action, holding the line against same-sex marriage, and the planned reform of workplace relations law.

So it’s no surprise that escalating anxiety in the right’s “anyone but Turnbull” camp reached fever pitch in the lead-up to last week’s leadership vote. The conservatives’ flag-bearer Cory Bernardi demonstrated the panic best, declaring the spill motion an ambush orchestrated by Turnbull and his supporters, and that a change to Turnbull would throw the party into a “moral abyss” resulting in a mass exodus of supporters.

If there was such an exodus, it would be more modest than mass, considering the Liberal Party’s supporter base has been reduced to a rump. One pollster recently described this group as the remaining “rusted-on Coalition voters who would prefer to lose with Abbott than win with Turnbull”. That’s the 54 per cent of Coalition voters who prefer Abbott as leader over the 40 per cent who prefer Turnbull.

Yet it’s clear from the 64 per cent of overall voters preferring Turnbull (over Abbott’s 25 per cent) that, just as the times eventually came to suit John Howard even after he was rejected by his party, they have come to suit Turnbull too. Two opinion polls leading up to the spill vote found Turnbull as leader would turn around the Government’s fortunes, either putting it in front of the Labor opposition, or at least within striking range.

Noting this, the question currently occupying the minds of the Liberal right will be whether the times suit any other potential leadership candidates, particularly those with a stronger predisposition to the conservatives’ agenda.

This is where things may go awry for Turnbull. Going into last Monday’s special party room meeting, both Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Social Services Minister Scott Morrison said they would not challenge Abbott for the leadership – essentially giving Turnbull a clear run. Whether that commitment carries over to any future leadership stoush is yet to be seen.

While PM Abbott managed to secure a reprieve at Monday’s meeting, and has reportedly been given time to prove his mended ways, this hiatus also gives the Liberal right extra time to further develop its “anyone but Turnbull” leadership options.

Bishop is an obvious contender, with popular support in the community despite her gender being seen as an obvious handicap by Liberal hardliners. The Foreign Minister may have not taken too kindly however to recent suggestions in the media that her role as deputy leader was in peril. This could only have been seen as threatened retribution from Abbott supporters for Bishop’s perceived siding with Turnbull.

Then again, Bishop certainly doesn’t lack ambition and so may well be prepared to forgive and forget if that’s what it takes to get the top job.

However, if she were to become prime minister through the good graces of the Liberal right, Bishop would be wise to keep a watchful eye on Morrison. The ever-ambitious Social Services Minister, who was a favourite of the conservatives while in the border protection portfolio, is now moving at full speed to soften his image in the tricky welfare portfolio (that ironically was a hospital pass from the current PM).

Despite having been in the new job for mere weeks, Morrison has already jettisoned the previous minister’s widely-ridiculed pre-marriage counselling certificates, and signaled he will drop the contentious requirement for young job seekers to wait six months before getting access to welfare support. These swift decisions, along with the commencement of a media charm offensive and an earlier statement on his determination to “stop the rorts” suggest Morrison is pursuing an ambitious strategy to win brownie points from both sides of the political divide.

The longer Abbott draws out his failing prime ministership, the more time Morrison has to implement this strategy, and the greater chance there is of him becoming a real competitor for Turnbull and Bishop in the leadership stakes. There’s also a chance that, in a three-cornered contest involving Turnbull, Morrison and another candidate such as Bishop, Morrison could benefit from the split vote, just as Abbott did when competing with Turnbull and Hockey for the Liberal leadership in 2009.

Time may well have been on Turnbull’s side since he lost the Liberal leadership, but it is no longer. With two new leadership contenders emerging from the pack, the potential prime ministerial aspirant faces a race to convince the Liberal Party’s hardliners that he is the lesser of two evils.

Turnbull’s future, and essentially that of that nation, therefore rests in the hands of those who will determine whether a lurch to the left is more or less bearable than their own electoral oblivion. To assume the outcome of that deliberation would be the height of political foolishness.