Education minister and Leader of the House Christopher Pyne has been unable to confirm Prime Minister Tony Abbott has the numbers to retain the Liberal leadership if the party goes to a ballot on Tuesday.
Mr Pyne appeared on TODAY this morning to address reports of a possible leadership spill following Mr Abbott’s plunging popularity in the polls but only further inflamed speculation when he was unable to confirm Mr Abbott would have the support of the majority of the party.
“I can’t speak for all of my colleagues in a secret ballot and it’s obviously very hard to do so,” Mr Pyne said.
“I assume that the party room knows that the worst thing we could possibly do is change leadership right now.
“[But] I can’t rule it out.”
Mr Pyne’s comments come as News Corp reports Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has offered to serve as Malcolm Turnbull’s deputy on a potential ballot.
When asked by host Karl Stefanovic if Mr Abbott would be prime minister following a party room meeting on Tuesday Mr Pyne said “I certainly hope so”.
Labor’s Anthony Albanese said Mr Pyne was insinuating the prime minister did not have the numbers to retain leadership.
“When you start having senior people can’t say that the prime minister has the numbers then it’s over,” Mr Alabanese said.
After flying back to Adelaide from his Sydney appearance on TODAY, Mr Pyne immediately went into damage control, appearing on Sky News to “clear up any misinterpretation” over his “entirely unremarkable comments”.
“My position is totally unchanged. I don’t believe there should be a spill motion on Tuesday, I don’t believe Tony Abbott should be replaced as leader of the Liberal party, I believe we have the right team in the right positions right across the cabinet and the government, and that they should remain in place and that we should get on with the job of doing what the Australian people want us to do which is make their lives easier,” he said.
“Obviously I can’t know what is in the minds of my colleagues. I was simply pointing out he obvious, I can’t pretend to have extra-sensory perception.”
During the show Mr Pyne had also moved to calm reports of a secret “closed-door meeting” between Mr Turnbull and Mr Abbott where Mr Turnbull pressed the Prime Minister on how the government would address its leadership woes.
Fairfax Media reports Mr Turnbull was “underwhelmed” by Mr Abbott’s response when he reportedly simply repeated the key themes of his National Press Club speech.
Mr Pyne today confirmed Mr Turnbull had spoken to Mr Abbott last week but said ministers held meetings with the Prime Minister all the time and this was nothing unusual.
“All the cabinet were in Canberra last week for two days of meetings and we all had meetings with the Prime Minister of one kind or the other and Malcolm had a regular meeting with the Prime Minister,” Mr Pyne said.
Mr Abbott today addressed the speculation at an appearance in Melbourne saying he would not talk about the “contents of private conversations”.
“I’m certainly expecting we will have a strong and constructive party room meeting next Tuesday,” he said.
“We are going to get on with government next week and the last thing that you’ll see from me is any deliberate distractions.
“I’m not going to play the usual Canberra insider games.”
He is reportedly confident neither Mr Turnbull nor Ms Bishop were campaigning for his job, saying he “trusts” the two potential contenders.
The communications minister last night said Mr Abbott had the support of his entire front bench.
Mr Turnbull was at a ‘Politics in the Pub’ event in Karen McNamara’s electorate of Dobell, when he was forced to address the speculation.
“I’ve been leader of the Liberal party, I know what it’s like to lead a political party,” he said.
“There is no tension between Tony and any of his senior colleagues.
“It is a very, very cohesive team and we are all supporting him.”
Mr Turnbull had been in Dobell to speak to the Member for Dobell about the rollout of the NBN.