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Turnbull's bolt from the blue stuns colleagues

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James Massola, Matthew Knott

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News haiku: Turnbull Bolts the door

Artist Cathy Wilcox's take on Malcolm Turnbull slamming Andrew Bolt's column about his leadership ambitions.

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Coalition MPs have lashed Malcolm Turnbull for launching an extraordinary broadside at conservative columnist Andrew Bolt, arguing the stoush has again knocked the government's budget sales job off course.

Bolt suggested on Sunday during an interview with Prime Minister Tony Abbott - who is a personal friend - that Mr Turnbull had an ''eye on your job'' and on Monday accused Mr Turnbull of aiding the Coalition's enemies by dining with Clive Palmer and by launching a Parliamentary Friends of the ABC group.

Mr Turnbull then launched an attack on the News Corp commentator, saying his accusations ''bordered on the demented'' and were ''quite unhinged''.

Question time: Malcolm Turnbull at Parliament House.

Question time: Malcolm Turnbull at Parliament House. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

''Mr Bolt is fond of attacking what he regards as the government's enemies in the media - principal amongst whom, of course, he numbers the ABC,'' Mr Turnbull said. ''I don't think you would see anything as crazy as that on the ABC.

''I just have to say to Mr Bolt, he proclaims loudly that he is a friend of the government. Well, with friends like Bolt, we don't need any enemies.''

Mr Turnbull's attack, which Labor seized on during question time, stunned colleagues who felt that after three tumultuous weeks following the budget, the government had started to get its budget message back on track.

Attacked by Malcolm Turnbull: Commentator Andrew Bolt.

Attacked by Malcolm Turnbull: Commentator Andrew Bolt. Photo: Justin McManus

One Coalition frontbencher said ''many people are wondering what he's up to''.

''Why did Malcolm decide to add this to the news cycle? If he hadn't done this, the story was dead, finished … Andrew has a lot of friends on our side of politics.''

A second minster dismissed suggestions that Mr Turnbull could rekindle his leadership ambitions and criticised the intervention.

''You would normally just flick this, leave it,'' said the minister, who asked not to be named. ''But Malcolm doesn't flick stuff and he doesn't let things go. If you go after him [Turnbull], he will kick you back, it's the petulance of the left.''

A Liberal senator said: ''People are just wondering why he is kicking the story along. They don't like each other, that goes back to the leadership contest [with Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey in December 2009].

''I don't think he has any chance but I don't know what he thinks.''

A third MP traced the fractious relationship back to 2009 as well, pointing out there was ''no love lost between them over climate change'' and adding that ''this has been brewing for six or seven years''.

The backbench MP said the Coalition must be careful not to replicate the turmoil of the Labor years.

''We are meant to be the adults,'' the MP said.

Mr Abbott was pressed in question time by Labor if he supported his friend Bolt or his ''frenemy'', Mr Turnbull, in the spat.

''Madam Speaker, in any dispute between a member of my frontbench and a member of the fourth estate, I'm firmly on the side of my frontbencher,'' Mr Abbott said.

On the ABC's 7.30, Bolt said Mr Turnbull's ''amazingly abusive'' attack on him proved he was right to question the Communications Minister's leadership ambitions.

''This was not a story until Malcolm Turnbull chose to make it so today,'' Bolt said ''His reaction is so over the top he could only want the story to keep running and running.''

Mr Abbott urged Bolt to continue as a commentator after he was found guilty of breaching section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act - laws that the Coalition promised to repeal in its current form.

Mr Turnbull declined to comment further on Monday.

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