Demonstrating that a maudlin sense of humour has not deserted a Liberal Party run ragged by internal dissent, a participant at last week’s invitation-only fundraising dinner on Melbourne’s Southbank refers to the event as the "Last Supper".
When Malcolm Turnbull and a clutch of senior ministers spoke to wealthy Melburnians, the aim of the exercise was not simply to raise money for a cash-starved local branch, it was to reaffirm the faith in a Liberal centrist brand – or, as Turnbull calls it, the "sensible centre".
No one in the room – from which the media was excluded – was left in much doubt that Turnbull and his ministers believe the government’s hold on power risks being trashed by a noisy insurgent campaign led by former prime minister Tony Abbott and his allies in the media.
Nor would those present have been unaware of tensions in the Victorian branch between conservatives allied with state president Michael Kroger and party moderates.
A sampling of opinion among senior Liberals present at the fundraiser reveals the extent to which Abbott’s destabilisation is dismaying his colleagues.
"These hard-core social conservative parasites require a nest in order to breed: they are using the Liberal Party for their own ends," said one.
Another senior Liberal, who did not attend, likened Abbott’s behaviour to a suicide bomber bent on destroying the party’s electoral prospects to salve his own disappointment at having lost the leadership.
At the heart of all this, and leaving aside personality issues arising from Abbott’s removal as prime minister, lies tension between modernists and traditionalists, monarchists and republicans, social conservatives and progressives, "wets" and "dries", renewables advocates and coal fetishists, climate change sceptics and those who accept the science – and in the end what it means to be a Liberal.
Broadly, this is a debate that has dogged the Liberal Party for much of the past half century but you could argue it has never been more scarifying, to the point where a reasonable question might be asked: how will the party suture the ruptures that are bloodying its future.
Indeed, what is its future and will the centre hold?
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, in what one of her cabinet colleagues described as a "cracking speech", reminded the audience of the party founder’s own words.
"We took the name ‘Liberal’ because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments; in no sense reactionary, but believing in the individual, his right and his enterprise," Robert Menzies wrote in his memoir.
Like elements of the Sermon on the Mount, these utterances have been subjected to various interpretations. Moderates claim his words as vindication of a "progressive" small "l" approach, conservatives argue that in office he ruled as a traditional largish "c" conservative.
Menzies may best be described as something in between, neither small "l", nor largish "c", rather a Menzian liberal who eschewed dogmas and labels to rule from what he perceived to be the centre in the service of the "unorganised majorities", as conservative historian David Kemp puts it.
If he were alive today, Menzies would no doubt be alternatively appalled and puzzled by what has become of the party he created out of the ashes of the United Australia Party he led at the onset of World War II.
Chances are he would have looked askance at the emergence of a more ideological Liberal Party under John Howard, in which conservatism and liberalism "emerged as distinct – and competing – ideological positions", in the words of Professor Greg Melleuish, a perceptive writer on Liberal Party matters.
"Howard’s broad church worked well, as long as he was at the helm. Once he was gone the Liberal Party seemed to erupt in conflict between liberals and conservatives," Melleuish says.
This might regarded as an understatement.
We can only speculate about what Menzies would have made of the "culture wars" and "history wars" and "political correctness wars" that exploded during the Howard era, and now find rampant expression in a media and social media echo chamber.
Reference to Howard invites "what if" questions.
What if Howard had stepped aside for his deputy Peter Costello in early 2006? What if Howard had yielded to pressure in the run-up to the 2007 election to hand over? What if Costello had ascended to the Liberal Party leadership after the 2007 defeat instead of abruptly announcing he would not serve?
Would we have witnessed such a shambolic period in Australian political life, including five prime ministers in a decade if you count Kevin Rudd twice?
In light of the opening paragraph in this column, the question could be asked: who might emerge as the Judas in a dysfunctional Liberal leadership … or the Peter?
What would seem to be required is a Peter, figuratively speaking, to salve wounds. In this, we are not talking about Peter Dutton.
Tony Walker is a vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University and a Fairfax columnist.