Rudd's support for a challenge edging closer
SUPPORT for Kevin Rudd among Labor MPs has grown, placing the former prime minister potentially within striking distance of Julia Gillard in the event of a challenge.
Estimates put his backing as high as 45 votes out of 102 caucus members, although Ms Gillard's supporters say it is lower.
Kevin Rudd is an asset to the Australian Labor Party ... He's a very popular figure, there's no doubt about that.
The shift in sentiment follows Labor's trouble-plagued start to the election year, which has shaken MPs and fuelled perceptions of disorder.
Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
Adding to Ms Gillard's discomfort, two of her most senior ministers on Monday said Mr Rudd was an electoral plus.
''I think he is an asset and we should use him, but it has to be a disciplined asset,'' said the Minister for the Arts and Regional Development, Simon Crean.
Last year Mr Crean was one of Mr Rudd's harshest critics but he believes the party would benefit from his popularity.
Ms Gillard's chief parliamentary tactician, the Transport Minister, Anthony Albanese, also called for Mr Rudd to be returned to the fold.
''Kevin Rudd is an asset to the Australian Labor Party,'' he told Sky News. ''We need to engage Kevin Rudd and use him wherever possible. He's a very popular figure, there's no doubt about that.''
With her leadership facing greater scrutiny, Ms Gillard pleaded for loyalty.
At the first caucus meeting for the year, she blamed internal disloyalty for some of Labor's problems, revealing that journalists had told her Labor MPs had been waiting for them to return from holidays to complain about her leadership. But one caucus member said she ''needed to look closer to home''.
The MP said Ms Gillard had the backing of most MPs last year but that support had weakened noticeably after ''a terrible start'' to the year.
''We needed to make every post a winner in order to catch the Coalition by polling day, but it hasn't gone to script so far, not at all,'' the MP said.
A series of self-inflicted political wounds has sapped morale and restarted talk about whether anything would be achieved by another leadership change.
These included the clumsily handled dumping of the Northern Territory senator Trish Crossin and the timing of the election announcement, which was followed closely by the resignations of two senior ministers.
Ms Gillard's reduced support, confirmed to Fairfax Media by multiple sources from both sides of the caucus, raises the possibility of a second leadership challenge by Mr Rudd, although his supporters said no move was imminent. The estimate of 45 votes for Mr Rudd is regarded as ''not unrealistic'' by a key Gillard backer, who put it ''closer to 40''.
While Mr Rudd would need 52 votes to win, it is thought backing in the mid 40s would be enough to build towards a majority in a leadership ballot. He received only 31 votes to Ms Gillard's 71 in the count last February.
But Mr Rudd has not only stayed in politics but has recently begun to expand his profile. Last week he returned to the Seven Network's program Sunrise as a regular guest.
Voter support for the government, which had been slowly recovering in the second half of last year, has fallen again, according to two polls in News Ltd papers.
Labor MPs were particularly concerned at the decline in Ms Gillard's personal standing against Tony Abbott. According to Newspoll, her rating as preferred prime minister deteriorated by 4 points to 41 per cent and Mr Abbott's rose by 6 points to 39.
The poll also showed the number satisfied with her performance fell while those dissatisfied rose. The opposite was the case for Mr Abbott.