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Who would lead Labor against a rampant Malcolm Turnbull?

Contenders for Bill Shorten's job as Opposition Leader may be dissuaded by the air of looming defeat.

It seems an heroic assumption now, but midway through last year, the key players heading into the 2016 election looked to be set in stone. Heroic because it turned out to be wrong, and because for the best part of 15 years, following the 1998-2001 electoral cycle in which Kim Beazley and John Howard had squared off twice, either the opposition leader or the prime minister had been replaced mid-term.

Sometimes the leadership baton was passed more than once – from Brendan Nelson, to Malcolm Turnbull, to Tony Abbott. Dumping leaders had become standard operating procedure in Canberra, the new normal.

Yet suddenly in 2015, all that instability – well, it stabilised. Tony Abbott had survived his "near death experience" in February and had conscientiously rebuilt his party-room base in response. Dissenters dwindled and former complainants lauded his wider consultation, a more civilised 2015 budget, a less dictatorial office, and the end of captain's picks.

On the Labor side, Bill Shorten powered ahead, exceeding expectations. The scale of Labor's recovery after its shattering 2013 loss was unprecedented in polling history. To the Victorian's continuing doubters, the retort was obvious: look at the polls, we're on track to win after just one term in the wilderness.

All that, however, was before "choppergate", before the debacle over the future submarines, before Abbott's belligerent negation of the same-sex marriage push.

These problems, and a welter of others, created a perfect spring storm, blowing Abbott's leadership away and installing the more popular Turnbull in The Lodge.

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And that, in turn, flipped federal politics on its head, providing a jarring reversal of fortunes for both sides. So much so that the same forces that had driven the Liberals to do the unthinkable are now building within Labor's bedraggled ranks.

So, what chance Shorten will see a direct challenge or come under pressure from senior party figures to stand down in the wake of Turnbull's rise to the prime ministership?

It may be less unlikely than you think, even considering the rapidly closing pre-election window and the logistical hurdles facing prospective challengers.

Among the alternatives being quietly canvassed are the shadow treasurer Chris Bowen, deputy leader Tanya Plibersek, and the man Shorten out-pointed following the 2013 election defeat, Anthony Albanese.

Sources in the Labor camp say chatter has continued over summer as a succession of surveys chart the Labor leader's disastrously low personal polling. And, they caution, such talk could step up once parliamentarians cohabit the capital next week.

The party's hard heads have watched public support dive since the removal of Abbott, to the point that nobody now thinks Labor can win. The danger for Shorten is if disappointment hardens into anger at the prospect of not merely losing, but of actually going backwards.

According to one well-connected figure on the party's Right, the Left's Victorian factional warlord, Kim Carr, is reading the tea leaves and has become strangely interested in the extent of future support for Bowen. Word is, this is driven by his view that if Shorten's leadership becomes unviable, an ABA policy should guide deliberations – that being Anyone But Albo.

But if Bowen has supporters, those close to the shadow treasurer insist he remains loyal to Shorten. Few doubt that he covets the leadership down the track, but he believes his time is yet to arrive.

For a switch to occur it would take ether a significant groundswell – specifically the signatures of 60 per cent of the parliamentary party in favour of a spill – pursuant to Kevin Rudd's 2013 rule change – or for Shorten to agree to step down in the interests of the party.

Neither is likely but neither can be ruled out. Of course, the Caucus could also simply ditch the rule.

Electoral support for Shorten as preferred prime minister has dropped below 20 per cent, compared to Turnbull on 60 per cent and frequently higher.

A ReachTEL poll of more than 3000 voters last week gave Turnbull an advantage of 81-19 as the better PM, and put the government 10 points clear after preferences at 55 per cent to 45. The final Fairfax-Ipsos for 2015 gave the advantage to Turnbull as preferred PM at 69 to 18. Against Abbott, Shorten had led 50 to 34, this time last year.

Albanese, the most experienced senior player on the ALP front bench, is widely regarded as the most likely replacement, should the position become vacant. It has escaped no one's notice that he has stepped up his public profile over summer. Thursday was a case in point, holding a press event to announce his decision to re-contest his own seat of Grayndler and then using the occasion to launch a textbook political attack on Turnbull. "He is at war with the positions he has held over a political lifetime, on the republic, on marriage equality, on taking serious action to avoid dangerous climate change." 

Liberal Party polling confirms Albanese has a higher recognition and popularity than Shorten's. A proven parliamentary slugger, he solidly out-polled Shorten in Labor's first rank-and-file half of ballot for the leadership in 2013, but failed to secure a strong enough vote among his Caucus colleagues.

It was a result that raised questions over the new voting system, and over Shorten's support, suggesting that at least among ordinary ALP members, it was tepid.

Meanwhile, other factors weigh against a late switch. A change of Labor leaders could spark an early election if Turnbull decides Labor's turmoil provides the most advantageous time to pull the trigger.

Another is that Labor was so badly trounced after the Rudd-Gillard wars that it already lost most of its marginal seats, meaning there aren't the nervous ranks of marginal-seat MPs fretting about losing their jobs in an anti-Labor swing.

But perhaps the most compelling reason is that, with an election loss looking increasingly certain, nobody who seriously covets the prime ministership can see the point in leading their party to defeat. 

Best leave that to Bill.

Mark Kenny is Fairfax Media's chief political correspondent.

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