Despite the trend of events pointing to the contrary, I still don’t really expect Tony Abbott to become Prime Minister. Certainly now I expect the coalition will probably win the next election and I also expect Abbott to lead them at said election but my combined doubt over both of those events is just over 50%. It is however difficult to imagine the sort of circumstances that might actually prevent Abbott from winning the next election, I fancy the most likely would go something like this:
It’s May 2012: The opposition is enjoying an unassailable lead in the opinion polls; the public are terrified of the destruction the carbon tax is about to unleash on the economy and the governments perceived economic competence is at an all time low. The next month the carbon tax is implemented and the government’s popularity manages to hit a new low. The government maintains this level of unpopularity for a few months before it begins to recover a little bit after the sun continues to rise in this carbon taxed land. The polling is still terrible, but it is improving a little bit and now that he is the one going into an election promising reform, Tony Abbott becomes more accountable for his Direct Action scheme.
No matter, the focus of the opposition switches simply to economic management and for several months the opposition gets traction with that. It’s not as effective as the carbon tax campaign but it’s adequate and the electorate is fed up enough to accept any criticism of the government. Then in May the government delivers a budget surplus, just like the opposition said they wouldn’t, just as they always said they would, just when they always said they would. An ugly debate will ensue whereby Abbott will refer to the size of the surplus compared to the size of the five consecutives deficits but like Gillard’s “no carbon tax” pledge, his brash assertion that the government will never deliver a surplus leaves him looking a bit silly. In the heat of the charged atmosphere he missteps a few times and says things that sound a bit hysterical, handing back to Labor it’s favourite line from the period of 2003-2010; that Tony Abbott is erratic and a risk.
Polling narrows a bit more, partially because of the budget, partially just because of the election year; some members begin to contemplate for the first time since 2010 the possibility that they might lose the election and a bit of unrest occurs on the Liberal backbench. So long as the other prominent leadership contenders are sturdy and locked in behind Abbott there would still be little reason to expect Abbott wouldn’t cruise to victory. Unfortunately Turnbull will be in the ranks, the man who has achieved everything else in public life, who will be nearly sixty by this time and will not die wondering as he watches his last chance at the Prime Ministership slipping by.
Turnbull probably won’t win the leadership himself but once he lays down the gauntlet Abbott will be struggling against the tide of history, the tide that has denied every major party contender who suffered a leadership challenge since federation an election win. In 1981 Prime Minister Fraser defeated Andrew Peacock in a leadership challenge, this was the last time a challenged leader went on to contest the next election, one must look back even further to find an opposition leader who achieved the feat.
I think most of these events are quite probable, possible improvements for Labor might be the appointment of a more dynamic treasurer (calling Dr Craig), some movement towards a global consensus on climate change and perhaps Andrew Robb will make a play for the Deputy Leadership he so transparently covets. Either way with six months or so till an election, the pressure applied to the Liberal Leadership is likely to increase substantially: commentators will talk of a Liberal Party in crisis, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory etc. Then they will probably cruise home to a comfortable victory.