Tony Abbott is not plotting a return to the prime ministership and suggestions to the contrary are "fanciful", according to his spokesman.
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Ministers' resignation prompts calls for Abbott
Prime Minister Turnbull is grilled over why he took so long to cut loose two scandal hit ministers, while Eric Abetz calls for former prime minister Tony Abbott to be returned to the cabinet.
Mr Abbott has not yet announced whether he will stand again for his seat of Warringah, though there is growing expectation in Liberal ranks that he will run again.
The Daily Telegraph claimed on Wednesday the former prime minister turned humble backbencher was being urged by his former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, to stand again for Parliament in the hope of returning to the Lodge one day.
It further claimed that Mr Abbott had been told by former prime minister John Howard and cabinet secretary Arthur Sinodinos to pull his head in and stop criticising the Turnbull government.
But Mr Abbott's spokesman said of the claims that "the whole thing is fanciful".
Despite that denial - and much like former prime minister Kevin Rudd, who spent years agitating from the backbench before finally tearing down Julia Gillard - Mr Abbott does have a core group of conservative supporters and allies in the Liberal party room.
And similarly, there are MPs who believe that the times will once again come to suit Mr Abbott, as they did his political hero Winston Churchill, who spent years in the wilderness.
Mr Abbott's supporters include former defence minister Kevin Andrews, former industrial relations minister Eric Abetz and a group of MPs who meet for regular lunches in the so-called "monkeypod" room.
Preselection opened for 22 Liberal-held seats across NSW on Tuesday, with a host of other MPs including Bronwyn Bishop, Philip Ruddock, Craig Kelly, Angus Taylor, Bill Heffernan and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells under varying degrees of pressure to retain their seats - despite Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull throwing his support behind incumbents.
Eric Abetz: Return Abbott to ministry
Liberal senator Eric Abetz suggests that Tony Abbott should be restored to a prominent frontbench position in Malcolm Turnbull's upcoming ministry reshuffle. Courtesy ABC NewsRadio.
Mrs Bishop has made clear she intends to contest the next election, and is expected to face a preselection challenge, while Mr Ruddock and Senator Heffernan are yet to make clear whether they intended to go around again.
Innovation Minister Christopher Pyne brushed off concerns about "infighting" over preselections.
Noting he defeated a sitting Liberal member (Ian Wilson) to be preselected for his Adelaide seat in the early 1990s, Mr Pyne said, "that is part of the democratic competition that is the Liberal Party".
"We don't decide our preselections in smoke-filled back rooms like the Labor Party does," he told reporters on Wednesday.
"In preselections, especially after redistributions, there is always a robust, democratic competitive process. The dust will settle and life will go on."
When asked if he thought Mr Abbott would return as prime minister, Mr Pyne replied that the party had an "excellent Prime Minister in Malcolm Turnbull".
"There is no suggestion at all within the Coalition, in any quarter, that there will be a change to our leadership."
And acting Prime Minister Warren Truss said that Mr Abbott had made a substantial contribution as leader but everyone must respect the fact Mr Turnbull is now Prime Minister.
"[Mr Abbott] has a substantial legacy, he deserves to be honoured and respected...but Malcolm Turnbull is the prime minister now, he is the leader of the Liberal Party, therefore the leader of the government, he is also entitled to the support of his party, everyone needs to respect the fact that he is the leader and we move on," he said.
"There have been occasions when leaders have come back, but what we all need to do now is back Malcolm Turnbull."
He said it was a matter for individual MPs such as Mr Abbott and Mrs Bishop whether they would contest the next election.
And on his own future - Mr Truss is widely tipped to announce his retirement before the next election - the Nationals leader said he would not anoint Barnaby Joyce or any other National as his successor.
"I don't think it's appropriate for one leader to anoint another, I have a great respect for Barnaby, I'm sure he could do a very good job but it will be a matter in the end for the party room," he said, adding that others MPs such as Michael McCormack could lead his party, too.
"Michael McCormack has a great deal of talent but so do others in our leadership team."
Resources Minister Josh Frydenberg similarly dismissed suggestions of an Abbott comeback.
"I don't think that's going to happen," he told Sky News.
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