Prime Minister Tony Abbott, former Oxford boxing blue, is up against the ropes in the biggest fight of his political life, a fight he can only lose.
He could of course do as John Gorton did, vote against himself and run for the deputy leadership, but Abbott does not strike me as a man capable of voting against himself.
Should his party dump him as leader on Tuesday his losses are obvious, and all that remains to be seen is what he does with them. Retire from politics? Stay as a back bencher? If so, what kind of back bencher: obstructionist and vengeful, supportive and calm?
Given his powerful desire to stay where he is, any of these options are humiliating smacks in the face over a prolonged period with the equivalent of dozens of stinky wet fish. Quite a come down for the bloke who threatened to shirtfront Putin.
Should he retain his position it will be as a mortally wounded leader who can only limp, bleeding and bandaged though the rest of his term.
To a great extent Abbott has set himself up for this latter option, by haranguing colleagues and backbenchers as to the need for the LNP not to become the ALP and strand the country in similar chaos and angry bewilderment by changing leaders in their first term. This is a spurious argument. The two situations are entirely different, as I’ve argued here. It is an indication of the limitations of the conservative hive mind that nobody seems willing or able to differentiate between the Rudd/Gillard leadership woes, and the current LNP leadership woes, and it may well be their undoing that they can’t.
The false dilemma functions as a powerful argument for Abbott, and some would claim the only one he has.
The chances are few MPs will genuinely embrace retaining Abbott, but the majority may well embrace the desire not to be seen as resembling the ALP. They will also be concerned at the prospect of the ongoing difficulty of dealing with the buckets of mockery and scorn they poured on the ALP being thrown right back at them, particularly in an election campaign. The threat of members losing their seats may not yet be great enough for them to throw Abbott out, and they may be inclined to give him another chance in an effort to avoid the appearance of Labor-like dysfunction.
The vote will not be for Abbott, but against the appalling prospect of being seen as like the ALP, mirroring the sentiments of the electorate who gave the Abbott government power in the first place as a reaction to its enraged disappointment with the Rudd/Gillard shenanigans.
If Abbott stays on as a wounded leader, this will not work in the government’s favour as far as the electorate is concerned. We do not want a wounded leader. We want a strong, competent, active, engaged, visionary leader. Abbott has so far shown no signs of being such a leader, either to the electorate or to his party. The leadership challenge in itself damages an already seriously damaged Prime Minister, and the LNP will have to weigh up the costs to them of keeping him, as opposed to the costs of cutting him loose.
Either way Abbott will have to personally bear the brunt of the consequences, and this may well be the only act of real leadership the man ever performs, albeit entirely involuntarily.