Brendan Nelson – the knives are out

April 4, 2008

You know, I almost feel sorry for Brendan Nelson. No, scratch that – I do feel sorry for him. He’s being comprehensively hung out to dry by his own party.

His approval rating is in the toilet. Just when he thought the tide was turning, it plummeted again – to a record low of 7% as preferred Prime Minister. His deputy, Julie Bishop, is about as unlovely and unsupportive as it’s possible to get. Think about it – how often have you seen her fronting the media at all, let alone shoring up her leader? These days, you get her occasionally in Parliament doing her best impersonation of the Peter Costello smirk/sneer (snirk? smeer? smeerk?), and that’s about it.

Then there’s the ‘whispering campaign’ being conducted by unnamed Liberal MPs up in the Press Gallery at Parliament House. Nelson’s lost the confidence of the Party. Poor old Brendan just can’t seem to pull it together. ‘People’ are wondering if he really has what it takes. ‘People’ are wondering if it’s time for him to go.

Now there’s the ‘concerned comments’ being made by one-time supporters like Alexander Downer and Tony Abbott about how much ground Nelson’s got to make up. Never mind that Downer’s practically abdicated and seems to be little more than a bloody seat-warmer at the moment – he can still claim some press credibility by simple virtue of having been one of Howard’s top ministers and a failed leader. Of course he’s going to get asked for his opinion. After all, he knows how hard it is to try to lead the Liberal Party.

Even Nick Minchin, who’s credited with being the architect of Nelson’s successful election to the leadership, has been giving little sound-bites suggesting that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all.

It’s pretty obvious what’s going on here. Things are being set up for a leadership spill. Nelson won’t resign of his own accord. He still thinks he can turn it around. I’ll say this for him – his commitment seems real, regardless of what you think of his politics. If he won’t go, then eventually a challenger will ‘reluctantly’ appear.

That challenger? Malcolm Turnbull. The ‘young gun’ who was only narrowly defeated by Nelson after the 2007 election. All this whispering and commenting is designed to do one thing only – create an atmosphere of desperation within the Party. Nelson is made to look so weak, and the Party in such dire straits, that MPs will feel that they have to take a risk. One of the things that counted against Turnbull in his 2007 challenge was his youth. It was felt he was too inexperienced to effectively lead the Party. In their Hour of Need, though, he’s going to look decisive, charismatic, and a risk worth taking.

Nelson appeared live on The 7.30 Report tonight – surely a perfect chance to come out looking like a strong leader who will pull the Party together. Instead, he seemed to have been taking a peek into Julia Gillard’s playbook. He stayed on message the whole time, and that message was a wishy-washy, general statement and re-statement of his commitment to running an effective Opposition. He repeatedly stated he wasn’t going to discuss polls or rumours, and dodged every question from Kerry O’Brien. Most damningly, he wouldn’t confirm whether he’d rung Downer, Abbott and Minchin to confront them on their lack of support.

He’s just played right into their hands. Now he not only is being described as weak, he looks weak. At a time when the Opposition have the opportunity to hit the Government hard over the Northern Territory intervention and the proposed new email surveillance laws, the focus is on whether the leader can cut it against SuperKev.

My guess is that the consensus will be he can’t. The press will help matters along, but we’re going to see a spill sooner rather than later.

And then things are going to get interesting.

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