The fight over conservative Australian prime minister Tony Abbott’s leadership broke out into the open today, with a member of his party triggering a potential challenge next week.
Luke Simpkins said in an email to colleagues he will move a motion at a ruling Liberal Party meeting on Tuesday calling for Mr Abbott to declare that his job and that of his deputy Julie Bishop are open to a ballot of 102 government MPs.
It is not yet clear whether any MP will be nominated to run against Mr Abbott or his foreign minister.
The party’s chief whip Philip Ruddock confirmed the ballots would go ahead if the motion is passed at Tuesday’s meeting.
Halfway through his first three-year term as prime minister, Mr Abbott had been under increasing pressure over poor showings in opinion polls.
Public dislike of him is blamed in part for conservative governments suffering big election losses in Victoria state in November and Queensland state in January.
He has also been widely criticised for making the Duke of Edinburgh an Australian knight on Australia’s national day last month.
Mr Simpkins said in his email to party colleagues that the knighthood for Prince Philip was “the final proof of a disconnection with the people”.
He wrote: “I think we must bring this to a head and test the support of the leadership in the party room.”
Ms Bishop and communication minister Malcolm Turnbull have been touted as potential replacements for Mr Abbott.
While both have made public statements of support for him, they can sound out supporters from within government ranks now that the ballot is officially on the meeting agenda.
Mr Abbott has warned his colleagues against such a challenge. He said Australians voted out the chaotic and divided centre-left Labour Party government in 2013 because it had changed its prime minister twice in four years.
Government MP Andrew Nikolic told colleagues the challenge was the “ill-disciplined and self-interested behaviours that the Australian people explicitly rejected in 2013”.
He told Mr Simpkins in an email copied to other Liberal MPs: “Your actions are disappointing and divisive. You do not have my support for this.”
Government MP Dennis Jensen, who like Mr Simpkins is from Western Australia state, on Tuesday became the first publicly to state he had lost confidence in Mr Abbott.
Colleague Sharman Stone said earlier today that the growing leadership crisis needed to be resolved next week when parliament sits for the first time this year.
“If Tony gets through this, we’ve got to get behind Tony,” she said.
“If someone else does, that’s our leader and we get behind that person and we diminish the prospect of having Labour back in because that would be totally catastrophic.”
Mr Abbott said he and Ms Bishop, the foreign minister, would urge the meeting to reject the motion.
He said: “They are perfectly entitled to call for this, but the next point to make is that they are asking the party room to vote out the people that the electorate voted in in September 2013.
“We are not the Labour Party and we are not going to repeat the chaos and the instability of the Labour years.”