Recently Mumble kicked around the idea of a different Liberal leading the Coalition to the next election; nothing wrong with that. It’s interesting to ponder these things and harmless to do so as long as we remain grounded in the fact that it’s far more likely we’ll see Julia Gillard playing full forward for the Western Bulldogs than someone usurping Tony Abbott before the next election. I thought Mumble pretty neatly summarized the different perceptions people have about the Liberal leadership hierarchy in that outside of the beltway Turnbull is overwhelmingly perceived to be the alternative leader while inside the beltway nobody much thinks anyone has a chance if Hockey should put his hand up.
A few years ago I would have been with the beltway, Hockey is a brilliantly gifted politician, if not as capable as Turnbull he runs a close second but he’s much better liked within the Liberal Party room so it makes sense that the Liberals would turn to him before they turned to Turnbull. I was applying a similar sort of logic to this in 2011 when I whacked five bucks each on Messes Crean, Shorten and Smith to lead the Labor Party to their next election; why would the party turn to the outsider Rudd when they might have a capable leader within the tent? Crean and Shorten were mostly just insurance but I really thought Smith was a good chance of becoming Labor leader, what I didn’t factor into account were the necessary preconditions for a party to topple it’s Prime Minister.
There have only been three and a half cases of parties throwing out their own Prime Minister in Australian history. The half was Joh Gorton in 1971, Gorton actually survived a confidence vote from his own party which was tied then chose to resign, but according to the rules of the Liberal Party he was perfectly entitled to stay on as leader.
The three leadership putsches all happened to Labor Prime Ministers, Kevin Rudd alienated his colleagues with his abrasive leadership style and they indulged themselves by choosing a more palatable leader, the other two, Bob Hawke and Julia Gillard fell in much the same way: The caucus was worn down by a protracted period of disastrous opinion polling and finally yielded to the electorates preference for the high profile rival.
Diabolical opinion polling is a necessary precondition of Abbott leaving office before the next election. There is no chance of a 2010 style leadership putsch, especially when both Joe Hockey and Malcolm Turnbull were so close to the action and saw firsthand what happened to Labor after they took out Rudd. But when opinion polling plunges the depths of despair, the conventions are suspended and everything changes.
If Abbott starts consistently clocking Gillard like numbers, say a 2pp average over a four month period of 45-55, a Malcolm for PM campaign will manifest itself very quickly, it will be cultivated by the media (both the MSM and the New Media) but it will do so to reflect public sentiment. Those who want to rescue the Liberal Party but can no longer stand Abbott will rally around Turnbull and he can be safely relied upon to tacitly encourage the campaign as soon as he gets a whiff. Meanwhile those who oppose a return to Turnbull will dig in obstinately behind Abbott. Where Hockey is supposed to feature in all this is presumably as some sort of compromise candidate but by the time the majority of coalition MP’s would even countenance ditching Abbott they’d be long past the point where a compromise candidate might do the trick. Like Rudd in 2013 and Keating in 1991, it will be Turnbull or bust, the public wont cop a compromise candidate.
If Hockey is going to topple Abbott he can’t wait to be drafted, he’ll need to put himself out there and overshadow Turnbull, distancing himself from the Prime Minister and in the process undermining his leadership. History has shown that this is sort of skulduggery doesn’t come easily to Hockey as it does to say Turnbull, Rudd and Beazley. In 2009 by most accounts the Minchinites offered Joe the leadership as a sealed deal no questions asked but he dithered about for too long and Abbott snuck through on the inside. Perhaps he’s hardened from the experience but I suspect he’d be very reluctant to destabilize Abbott.
The one situation where Hockey can get up involves Abbott jumping before he’s pushed like Crean did some ten years ago. The situation would go something like this: Abbott resigns rather than endure Turnbull kicking the door in and one of his loyal supporters inherits all his support and then some, but would Hockey inherit Abbott supporters? Would the hard right go for the North Sydney moderate who is seen to be a bit close to Turnbull? Or would they turn to a real lion of the right? Besides do Prime Ministers really duck fights like that, Crean was an embattled Opposition Leader, Abbott has an election victory under his belt. The better precedent is Margaret Thatcher in the UK, she defeated Michael Hesseltine by an embarrassingly small margin so resigned and threw her support behind John Major who walked it in, but the chances of that happening here are less than Boris Johnson getting blinded by a champagne cork. Whatever which way you look at it, Hockey’s chances of coming to the leadership before the next election are spectacularly small. After the election on the other hand, all bets are off.