Illustration: Matt Golding.

Illustration: Matt Golding.

Former premier Ted Baillieu is remaining in Parliament partly to help mentor Liberal Party leadership aspirant Mary Wooldridge. That's the view of Liberal Party insiders, who believe Mr Baillieu is grooming Ms Wooldridge to contest the job as party leader, should Denis Napthine lose power in the next year.

As the embattled government meets in Lorne this weekend at the party's state conference, keynote addresses from Dr Napthine and federal MP Kevin Andrews will be the star attractions. But, behind the scenes at the Mantra hotel, some discussions with far-reaching implications will also take place.

Amid last week's chaos in State Parliament, poor opinion polls for the Coalition and the continued fallout from the saga surrounding rogue MP Geoff Shaw, a party cold war is taking place over who will succeed Dr Napthine should he lose the next state election: Planning Minister Matthew Guy, Community Services Minister Mary Wooldridge or Treasurer Michael O'Brien.

Mr Baillieu will not discuss the issue on or off the record, but senior Liberal sources have confirmed he is mentoring Ms Wooldridge. Mr Baillieu, who was pressured out of office as premier in March, has said he will remain in Parliament and contest the next election in his safe seat of Hawthorn.

The move is being viewed within the party as tactical, with Mr Baillieu and some of his colleagues, including Health Minister David Davis and Tourism Minister Louise Asher, quietly putting their weight behind the long-term elevation of Ms Wooldridge.

Ms Asher is also under some pressure to retire and relinquish her safe seat of Brighton, but has advised colleagues she intends to contest the next election. Ms Asher is believed to want the speaker's job, should Dr Napthine win.

''Louise has indicated she wants one more lap,'' a party source said. With Parliament in turmoil, and an election in the offing, none of the leading players will speak publicly on the struggle under way.

But normally discreet members of the party's Victorian administrative committee were willing to break ranks and admit privately that bad polling for the government had already sparked lobbying on who will lead in opposition.

''Some of us just feel it's time for generational change and some long-serving members need to make way,'' said one member.

Another Liberal Party figure said that ''some wounds are yet to heal'' and Mr Baillieu still held Mr Guy and Mr O'Brien and their supporters ''inherently responsible'' for his downfall as premier.

''Ted [Baillieu] views this battle as part of the same one that led to leaking against him and encouragement for Geoff Shaw to go rogue,'' the source said.

''He [Baillieu] will do everything in his power to ensure that this behaviour is not rewarded. Some believe that [his] recontesting his seat is specifically about ensuring that he is in the party room to help Mary to get the leadership if the government falls.'' The three leadership contenders - all of whom are aged 46 or under - are regarded as central to a much-needed generational change.

All three, however, boast the support of different members of the party's old guard. Although Ms Wooldridge has the support of Mr Baillieu, she faces an uphill battle to get the numbers for any tilt at a leadership position. Mr O'Brien is backed by former federal treasurer Peter Costello, and his other key supporters are believed to include state upper house MPs Andrea Coote and Georgie Crozier, and federal MP Kelly O'Dwyer.

Jeff Kennett is now backing Mr Guy - one of the former premier's ministerial advisers when he was in government - to be the next leader.

Preselection and the refusal of some sitting MPs to move on are at the core of the tension. While Labor has opened up a significant opportunity for renewal - with 13 MPs not contesting the next election or already out of Parliament - the Coalition has yet to face its preselection process early next year.

Mr Guy needs to move from the upper house to the lower house to realise his leadership ambitions. His supporters - who are believed to include conservative upper house MP Bernie Finn, state president of the Victorian Liberal Party Tony Snell and federal senator Scott Ryan - have been pressuring to install Mr Guy in the newly created seat of Eildon at the next election.

Supporters of Ms Wooldridge confirmed Mr Baillieu had undertaken, in her eyes, a role as a ''mentor''. They also admitted they have a preselection battle on their hands, with her seat of Doncaster set to be abolished in the wake of an electoral boundary redistribution.

The Sunday Age believes Nicholas Kotsiras may step down in the neighbouring safe seat of Bulleen and make way for Ms Wooldridge.

''Bulleen or Kew [former corrections minister Andrew McIntosh's seat], they would be the two seats that are being considered and spoken about this weekend,'' said a source close to Ms Wooldridge.

Such talk is impairing Dr Napthine's election chances.

''The current infighting to secure lower house seats for Guy and Wooldridge is inherently damaging and destabilising for the party as it prepares for the state election,'' said one leading Liberal Party figure.

''Mary and her supporters are the least active, believing that active campaigning damages Napthine's chances. But the fact is, while Labor are completing preselections this year, we have somehow been unable to set dates until next year.''

Indeed, many also fear that old feuds will spill over into the race to follow Dr Napthine as leader, as Mr Costello, Mr Kennett and Mr Baillieu all support different MPs.

Mr Kennett, once an ardent supporter of Mr Baillieu, has publicly called for him to stand down and not contest the next election.

The relationship between the two is now said to be toxic.

''Jeff Kennett and Ted Baillieu used to be politically inseparable, so to have them on opposite sides is extraordinary,'' a party insider said. ''Probably the only thing that unites Kennett and Baillieu these days is a dislike of Costello.''

The consensus is that Mr Guy has the numbers to edge out Mr O'Brien, but neither can muster the support of 50 per cent of their parliamentary colleagues.

That leaves Ms Wooldridge, with the backing of the old Baillieu support base, holding the balance of power.