Margie Abbott has told friends her husband is shattered by the loss of the prime ministership, predicting grimly that his pain will last a lifetime. Of all the understandable emotions including grief, regret, and, presumably something akin to guilt, that Margie has revealed, it was his betrayal by close colleagues that has cut the dumped leader the deepest.
Nationals coup: Macfarlane set to defect
Nationals leader Warren Truss is peppered by questions about the reported defection of former Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane from the Liberals to the Nationals.
It is a personal insight into the intensity of high office that reveals, as mountaineers have observed, that the descent can sometimes be more arduous than the journey up.
A separate account from inside the depleted Canberra bunker, has the erstwhile PM so deflated he has to be coached on a daily basis into interacting with colleagues by his ex-chief of staff (turned landlord) Peta Credlin, preferring to mull over his legacy and his losses in the sanctity of his office.
Abbott's now celebrated attendance at one of Peter Dutton's "Monkey Pod" lunches, replete with a cake baked by "Peta", suddenly makes sense in this light. It suggests the ex-PM's confidant remains utterly pivotal to his future in politics.
It's Peta who is "keeping Tony in the game", says a sympathetic MP. "She believes he can make a come-back probably more than him and is pushing him to it." But nobody really knows. Coalition members have talked themselves dry on the subject of Abbott's plans.
History suggests his decision will have material implications for the very efficacy of the Turnbull government, and therefore the nation. Looming large in assessments is the ALP's destructive turn following Julia Gillard's 'over-night' replacement of Kevin Rudd.
Turnbull wisely minimised the perception of an ambush on Abbott by allowing his target to succeed or fail on his own, and with ample time. Abbott had asked colleagues for six months in February and had been given even more, before the axe fell.
But there are unavoidable similarities. Ambush or not, another PM's demise was still an enormous convulsion given that it was not so long ago that the mid-term removal of Abbott was dismissed as unthinkable – all the more so because of Labor's "lesson".
Indeed, Coalition MPs in 2013 would have given any odds against repeating the catastrophic Labor mistake of tearing down a sitting first-term prime minister. Yet, amazingly, that's what they did. And now, Turnbull has his own version of Gillard's Rudd dilemma – what to do with a wounded ex-PM who won't leave.
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It was common as things went south for Labor to hear the catch-all explanation, "well that's what happens when you cut down a sitting prime minister". This was blithely used to explain spectacular surgical leaks against Gillard emanating from Rudd or his backers which very nearly saw the ALP defeated in 2010. As an explanation, it represented an enormous leave-pass for disloyalty, simultaneously elevating the hurt feelings of one man above the interest of both the nation and the government.
Turnbull is in a much stronger position, but he would be foolish to conclude he does not face similar challenges. With Abbott's promise of no sniping already threadbare, ongoing resentment from Abbott and a clutch of conservative malcontents seems unstoppable.
"She (Peta) believes he can make a come-back probably more than him and is pushing him to it."Sympathetic MP
As Margie Abbott's assessment reveals, the former prime minister is said to be angrier with his deputy Julie Bishop and with Scott Morrison – whose hardness he so often praised as border protection minister – than he is with Turnbull himself. The latter at least, had been up-front about his ambitions.
Gillard of course reluctantly agreed to draw Rudd close, naming him as foreign minister in her cabinet. Could Turnbull consider the same approach? Abbott might enjoy the double-revenge of displacing Bishop as a condition of his return, but that is not going to happen. Another option of a diplomatic posting seems more plausible – but only if Abbott is prepared to take it. Washington has already gone to Joe Hockey though, leaving only London among the real prizes.
One thing seems certain. Despite being overwhelmingly endorsed in opinion polls, the shockwaves of the mid-term change of prime ministers, will continue for some time. A fabric change that had looked seamless, is gradually exposing its seams, and in the process, exposing some of the hasty needle-work used to stitch things together.
An outstanding series by Fairfax Media's Peter Hartcher this week revealed the inner workings of the coup including its long preparatory stage, and this has set loose the dogs inside the defeated conservative camp. Among the results was Abbott effectively branding Bishop a liar for claiming she had told him of pre-coup conversations between Turnbull, Morrison, and herself as far back as February, before the spill attempt.
Turnbull's appointment of his key numbers man, Mal Brough, as Special Minister of State – and therefore minister for MPs' integrity – appears to be another case of hasty tailoring that is already unthreading. If Brough resigns, is sacked, or is even just stood aside, over his involvement in the Slipper-Ashby affair, it will be Turnbull's initial judgment in the dock.
This is because a police investigation into Brough was already on foot when he was appointed.
Another casualty of the coup was the Turnbull supporter, Ian Macfarlane. The former Abbott cabinet minister stunned the political community on the last day of Parliament by defecting to the junior partner, the Nationals. Two other Liberals were rumoured to be following.
What had appeared slick and professional, is suddenly looking messy and just a bit chaotic. Maybe the Rudd apologists were right after all: things do become uncontrollable when you replace a sitting prime minister.
Mark Kenny is Fairfax Media's chief political correspondent.