The boldness paid off. Leaders only call spills when they have the numbers and Turnbull had the numbers, 48 to 35.
But victories in these circumstances are always pyrrhic. They are always segues to the main event.
What spills do is quantify the size of the insurgency. A threat moves out of the shadows and becomes tangible.
The Dutton camp, as of Tuesday, stands at 35. The Queensland organisation has moved against Turnbull. Many Nationals want a new leader. They don’t get a vote, but they influence the vibe.
Peter Dutton – who told reporters after the drama of the spill he was happy to show us his softer side, he was free to “smile” now he was unshackled from the grave duties of border protection (take note Women’s Weekly, now available for profiles, call me) – was accepting the verdict of the party room.
As well as the surreal arrival of the “real Peter Dutton” – the smiley cuddly one – he was
not ruling out a second tilt. He also didn’t rule out having Tony Abbott in his cabinet in the event history called him to serve.
Dutton said his objective right now was respecting the colleagues and prosecuting the messages he believed were important to keeping Bill Shorten out of The Lodge.
So let’s note the obvious. If Dutton wanted peace, he would have stayed in the cabinet. Dutton on the backbench has time to plot, persuade and cajole – a luxury not afforded to busy cabinet ministers. If a handful of Liberal votes shift in the other direction, then it’s all over for Turnbull.
That means there is no comfort in Tuesday for the prime minister. If history is any guide, this is just round one.
The strategy of the conservatives intent on tearing Turnbull down is as clear as the nose on your face.
If we pull our heads out of the absolute car crash of the past few weeks, and look at the story of the year, the story prior to super Saturday, Turnbull had staged a recovery in terms of his approval ratings, and the major party contest had tightened.
For conservatives who view Turnbull’s presence as an affront to their ideological sensibilities, this is unacceptable.
Some of them are prepared to bury the government in order to bury Turnbull, and are sanguine about settling scores in opposition, given that, in their minds, this is a crusade for the soul of the Liberal party.
The objective in the anyone-but-Turnbull camp has been to wound the prime minister. This is being executed by fomenting a growing sense of crisis as Turnbull has attempted to land the government’s heavily contested energy policy – a sen
se of crisis aided and abetted by media helpers who prosper when the volume is dialled up to 11.
They have wanted Turnbull to panic and, foolishly, he’s obliged them by doing just that.
Sitting alongside the hardcore haters is another group in the government whose confidence has wobbled after the Liberal National party’s poor performance in the Longman byelection – folks who wonder whether Turnbull is the best frontman to deal with voters inclined to support disruptors like One Nation, whether he has the mongrel to do whatever they think it will take to win the next federal election.
That’s the doubt that’s dangerous for Turnbull, the doubt that springs from panic that the next federal election is already lost unless someone, Frank Underwood-style, turns over the table.
That doubt can be fuelled by further bad opinion polls, which is what camp Dutton was waiting on in order to execute their coup, which is why Turnbull launched his pre-emptive strike on Tuesday morning – throwing together a hastily constructed speed bump in front of an accelerating bus.
Right in front of us, the government of Australia is deciding the identity it wants to project to the voters. Will it be “better angels”, “half Trump”, or “full Trump”? That’s the calculation, and these people are desperate enough to be flirting with changing the leader from a known quantity to a polarising, entirely untested politician that voters disconnected from politics would struggle to recognise.
Turnbull, for now, remains on his feet, but the polls are still coming, they are coming fortnightly.
Given the government is now engaged in a full-scale civil war, the next run of polls will be bad, further fuelling the sense of crisis and the collapse of internal confidence – another manifestation of Canberra’s mad merry-go-round.
If we pull our heads out of the maelstrom of the week, it’s clear what the government should do. It should calm down, regroup, stick with Turnbull and craft a path to the next election just by doing the work.
But here’s what recent history tells us. Bizarrely it’s a lesson the political class seems incapable of learning.
Once a government cracks, it doesn’t matter who wears the crown.
First published at the Guardian Australia. Tuesday 21 August 2018.