Inside the disastrous attempt to install Peter Dutton as prime minister
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Inside the disastrous attempt to install Peter Dutton as prime minister

On Thursday night, while Malcolm Turnbull had his last supper at The Lodge, a group of Liberal MPs sequestered themselves for dinner at Kagawa Japanese restaurant in the northern Canberra suburb of Dickson.

Over tempura, sushi and beer - and far from the prying eyes of the parliamentary zone - Michael Sukkar, Angus Taylor, Andrew Hastie, Tony Pasin and Zed Seselja toasted a job almost done. The staff suspected the men were politicians, but had no idea they were hosting the cabal responsible for dislodging Australia's prime minister.

The five men were "not in a bad mood", a waiter observed. Nor were they celebrating raucously.

By morning, they would have the numbers to compel Turnbull to call a meeting of the parliamentary Liberal Party and quit as leader. What they would not achieve, however, was the second part of their plan: to install Peter Dutton as prime minister.

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Because while Dutton supporters dined, Scott Morrison was back at Parliament House, working well into the night to shore up his support. He made the important calls himself. "Scott didn't stop," one key backer says. "He went quite late."

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Late Friday morning, more than 24 hours after he publicly declared he had the numbers and called for a spill, Dutton personally delivered a petition to Turnbull signed by 43 MPs. He spent less than two minutes in the PM's office. An hour and a half later, Dutton would fall victim to the clumsiness of his own rebellion.

"This is a hack job," a senior Liberal observer said on Thursday night, a conservative not convinced of the merits of a revolution. "They’ve taken out grandpa’s rusty hacksaw ... these relationships are going to be very hard to heal."

In toppling Turnbull, the architects of the coup finished a project that began when Tony Abbott was deposed almost three years ago: to drag the party back to the right at any cost. But they nearly didn't get their chance.

Losing control

Just last month, Turnbull had worked himself into the best shape he had been in since the election. Labor was under pressure to hold its seats at the Super Saturday byelections. The opinion polls had tightened, with the Coalition behind only 49-51, and Anthony Albanese was readying as an alternative opposition leader to Bill Shorten.

In a macro sense, Turnbull had delivered a robust economy and strong jobs growth, and the budget was returning to balance. "Yet that hasn't been good enough for some of his colleagues," Christopher Pyne lamented on Friday.

But then, on July 28, everything changed. Labor held its seats easily. The Liberals' primary vote in the north Brisbane seat of Longman collapsed by 9.4 per cent. Voters weren't buying what Turnbull was selling.

Malcolm Turnbull and his frontbench on Monday.

Malcolm Turnbull and his frontbench on Monday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

"When you lose your primary vote, you lose control of your destiny," a federal minister sighed as he processed the shock result. And that was exactly as it transpired for Australia's 29th prime minister.

Turnbull was urged to dump the rest of his proposed tax cuts for big business, while Abbott ramped up his attacks on another unresolved policy: the National Energy Guarantee. He brought the focus back to the issue that has divided Australian politics - and destroyed its leaders - for more than a decade: climate change. Why are we legislating an emissions target but not a price target, he asked. "The whole thing's a crock," Abbott told colleagues.

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The former PM's allies, including younger conservatives who wanted to install someone like Peter Dutton, seized the day. "Abbott’s forces saw energy [policy] a mile away," said one Liberal operative. "When we lost Longman, this was always going to happen. There is no way he [Turnbull] was going to get to an election."

Blunders didn't help. Turnbull claimed victory when the NEG wasn't killed off by the party room, but days later he was forced to backtrack, and condemned the emissions target to ministerial regulation rather than law. Far from a masterstroke, it alarmed already-sceptical MPs. "That would just hand the keys to the lolly jar to the Labor Party," one feared.

Chaos takes over

By this stage, Dutton's leadership tilt was on the front pages. The then home affairs minister issued a tweet on Saturday morning pledging support to the PM, but its necessity and its tardiness betrayed the reality. Pyne and others spent the weekend on the phone to MPs, evaluating the situation. Come Monday, the government junked the emissions target altogether, and a sense of chaos took over.

Dutton had a strong contingent of fellow Queenslanders behind him, plus Abbott's allies and a slew of others - but a challenge was not guaranteed. The PM's decision to vacate the leadership and test the numbers on Tuesday morning shocked both sides. "It was an airstrike on his own position," one MP said. He voted for Dutton as a "protest" to how the NEG had been handled.

The 48-35 result looked and felt too close for comfort. Commentators on 2GB radio and Sky News declared Turnbull's leadership was terminal. The PM and his supporters portrayed the outcome as "convincing". After all, they argued, Abbott had beaten Turnbull by only one vote back in 2009.

Dutton barely disguised his intent to strike again. He outlined a vague policy manifesto of taking action on immigration levels and removing the GST on power bills - a suggestion trashed by Morrison and Turnbull the next day. He confirmed he was calling colleagues to ask for support.

Peter Dutton on the way to a press conference on Thursday.

Peter Dutton on the way to a press conference on Thursday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

As early as Wednesday morning, there were rumours and reports Alex Hawke - Dutton's assistant minister - and first-term Western Australian MP Ben Morton were doing the numbers for Morrison. Turnbull's camp as late as Friday afternoon dismissed that as conjecture. The reports were quickly hosed down because Morrison instructed them "to make sure that wasn't true". The Treasurer had made it quite clear he would not move for the leadership unless he had Turnbull's blessing.

On Wednesday afternoon, Mathias Cormann went to the PM's office flanked by Michaelia Cash and Mitch Fifield. He told Turnbull he believed the PM had lost the support of his party room. What this was based on remains unclear. Cormann has said cabinet ministers and backbenchers told him they had switched their support to Dutton. But the meeting ended with Turnbull uncertain of his fate.

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Later, as senior ministers filed in and out of the PM's office, news broke that a petition was doing the rounds calling for another party room meeting. It was a clear sign Dutton's forces believed they had the numbers. But few MPs leaving the building that evening had actually seen it. There had been a lot of "fake news," warned Liberal MP Bert van Manen.

The petition did exist, however. Hastie and Pasin were shopping multiple versions of it around the house. Kelly was one of the first to sign up when it was brought to his office at around 6.30pm. Next door, in Abbott's office, a rowdy party went late into the night, with aides seen ferrying out plastic bags full of empty bottles and wrappers.

Come Thursday morning, things moved quickly. About 9.15am, Pyne told MPs at the regular whips' morning tea not to sign, and that he was worried about intimidation. "I would urge you not to sign the petition and then we can all go back to our electorates and let them tell us what they think of our behaviour this week," Pyne said, according to those present.

But at exactly the same time, Cormann, Cash and Fifield were back in the PM's office tendering their resignations. At 9.35am, they stood in the Senate courtyard and made it public. Some of Turnbull's backers considered this unnecessary and off-putting.

Mitch Fifield, Mathias Cormann and Michaelia Cash announcing their resignation to the media on Thursday.

Mitch Fifield, Mathias Cormann and Michaelia Cash announcing their resignation to the media on Thursday.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

An exit strategy

Either way, the PM knew immediately he was finished. "He accepted he couldn’t form a ministry," a confidant says. Straight away, Turnbull gave Morrison his blessing. Morrison started making calls, along with Hawke, Morton and Stuart Robert, a staunch conservative from Dutton's home state of Queensland but a close friend of Morrison.

They were assisted by some of Turnbull's closest moderate allies - Pyne, Paul Fletcher, Simon Birmingham and Trent Zimmerman - who started wrangling votes behind Morrison.

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Inside the PM's office Thursday morning were his chief of staff Clive Mathieson, principal private secretary Sally Cray, frontbencher and friend Craig Laundy and his wife Lucy, as well as a revolving door of allies.

The discussion turned to Turnbull's legacy and exit strategy. According to one participant, a calm Lucy Turnbull wanted her husband to go with dignity and step down straight away. But Cray was intent on "digging in". Turnbull himself was "calm - remarkably so", another observer said.

In the end, the PM opted to wreak some havoc on the way out. He demanded Dutton's forces bring him 43 names on a petition if there were to be another party room meeting. He set a tentative time of midday Friday, giving Morrison 23 hours to shore up support. He also commissioned advice on Dutton's eligibility under section 44 of the constitution, to be expedited by the Solicitor-General.

None of this would seriously alter the course of events. "That’s just him having fun. He’s got that out of his system now," observed one backer. But Turnbull's camp was ready to make good on the threat to end the week without a second meeting. It was on the Dutton crusaders to put up or shut up. The PM went for a walk that afternoon and then left for the Lodge at 5.30pm.

Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull at Parliament House on Thursday.

Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull at Parliament House on Thursday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Meanwhile, on the phones, Morrison's pitch to MPs proved compelling. "I can sell stopping the boats and cutting taxes," he told them. "I can hold the show together and I've got clean hands." Morrison's backers also appealed to their colleagues not to "reward the insurgency".

Julie Bishop - having served as a loyal deputy to four leaders - also entered the race, selling herself as an experienced candidate who was actually popular in the electorate. Dutton emphasised he held a marginal seat and he could run a successful marginal seat campaign.

"I want to do what’s best for the country," he told MPs. "I want to see us do as well as we can, I want to win at the next election."

I can hold the show together

Scott Morrison's pitch to colleagues

There were accusations of bullying and intimidation by Dutton's army. Turnbull backers alleged Victorian MPs including Sarah Henderson, Julia Banks, Chris Crewther and Jane Hume had their preselections threatened. Henderson said she had been offered a ministry by the Dutton camp as long as she committed what she considered to be "an act of treachery".

At the same time, MPs were being inundated with emails from Liberal Party voters livid about what was being wrought by their representatives in Canberra.

"As the week went on, the reaction from the community had a big impact in Morrison’s favour," one Liberal MP said. "A lot of MPs were just bombarded with Liberal voters saying that Dutton was completely unacceptable."

In the end, the Turnbull camp's fury at what it saw as a vengeful insurgency of posturing, pretence and lies was proven to be justified. The motion to spill the leadership on Friday passed narrowly, 45 votes to 40. Liberal MP Melissa Price said the look on Turnbull's face was "just horrifying".

"He couldn't believe how close it was," she said.

The stampede of votes that Cormann had claimed were in the Dutton column turned out to mostly be his own. Dutton lost the final showdown to Morrison 40 votes to 45. The celebrations of previous nights turned out to be premature. And in the words of one Turnbull backer: "It's been traumatising. But we won again. So I guess I should be happy."

Outgoing prime minister Malcolm Turnbull with his family on Friday.

Outgoing prime minister Malcolm Turnbull with his family on Friday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Michael Koziol is the immigration and legal affairs reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in Parliament House