‘Borrowed time’: Liberals give O’Brien ultimatum for May leadership spill

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A group of Liberal MPs is giving Victorian Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien until May to improve his party’s fortunes before facing a potential leadership challenge.

The group attempting to topple Mr O’Brien believe most of the 31 Liberal MPs support a leadership change. Three spreadsheets, compiled by supporters and opponents of Mr O’Brien and seen by The Age, show who each Liberal MP would likely support in the event of a spill. They estimate that both former leader Matthew Guy and Mr O’Brien have between 11 and 16 supporters with up to nine MPs undecided.

Opposition leader Michael O’Brien at a press conference in June.Credit:Darrian Traynor

The Age has interviewed almost 20 Liberal MPs about the leadership, several of whom said there had been a noticeable shift in recent months, with some backers of Mr O’Brien wavering. Eight Liberal MPs – more than 25 per cent of the party room – told The Age they were aware of the timeline after it was agreed upon during informal conversations through last week’s parliamentary sitting. None of the plotters agreed to speak on the record.

In what was seen as a significant intervention, shadow health minister Georgie Crozier, a member of Mr O’Brien’s four-person leadership team, expressed frustration during last week’s party room meeting that opposition MPs were not effectively holding the Andrews government to account for its errors.

According to three sources present at the meeting, Ms Crozier implored colleagues to pursue the government with more vigour. She was supported in the meeting by Mr Guy, who expressed similar sentiment.

Mr O’Brien took over the party at one of its lowest points after the 2014 election trouncing. He has faced internal criticism for his approach during the pandemic, through which he has struggled to take advantage of the prolonged lockdown caused by COVID-19 seeping from quarantine hotels. Opposition leaders around the country have faced similar difficulty making political headway, and Mr O’Brien’s approach reflected his belief that partisan attacks would cause a public backlash during a health crisis.

The May timeline is based on the parliamentary calendar, with dissatisfied MPs believing any new leader would need at least 18 months to make an impression on voters. That means any MP willing to bring on a leadership spill would need to do so at one of the three party room meetings before the budget on May 20.

Those MPs backing Mr O’Brien believe the latest leadership tensions are aimed at destabilising the Opposition Leader, who they claim is gaining ground on Premier Daniel Andrews as the health crisis eases and people begin focusing on ideas for economic recovery. “There is a risk that the polls will move back our way,” one shadow cabinet minister said.

“That must’ve given them a new sense of urgency.”

Former opposition leader Matthew Guy, pictured conceding defeat in the 2018 election, has been touted as a contender.Credit:Chris Hopkins

The disaffected Liberals have not settled on who the challenger to Mr O’Brien will be. Liberals in and outside Parliament are urging former leader Matthew Guy to reclaim the leadership, but he said on 3AW last week he was not interested in the job. Some Liberals close to Mr Guy, who declined to comment on this story, claim the MP is remaining tight-lipped as others actively work to destabilise the leadership.

“I think he is keen but cautious,” said one of his supporters. Mr Guy led the party to a resounding 2014 election loss, including in the once blue-ribbon seats of Hawthorn and Nepean.

One option being canvassed, if a challenger cannot be agreed on, is to move an “empty chair” spill motion at a party room meeting. This would force MPs to vote on whether Mr O’Brien’s position should be declared vacant and a subsequent vote held to determine who should hold the position.

Another option is to continue intensifying internal pressure on Mr O’Brien to the point where he feels obliged to hand over the leadership in the best interests of the party. This happened in 2013 when then-premier Ted Baillieu resigned.

“He’s on borrowed time unless there’s a road to Damascus type change … All the party does is whinge.”

Four members of the Liberal Party’s shadow cabinet who currently back Mr O’Brien, and who spoke to The Age on the condition of anonymity, said while unwilling to bring on a spill they would be willing to switch leaders if Mr O’Brien were to stand aside.

Mr O’Brien’s backers are generally longer-serving MPs from the faction of the party aligned to state president Robert Clark. Mr O’Brien’s opponents include MPs Tim Smith, James Newbury, Beverley MacArthur and Neale Burgess, who are generally aligned with federal minister Michael Sukkar and his grouping.

The Opposition Leader’s office was contacted for comment.

A recent poll result in Western Australian before the March 13 election pointed to a Labor victory that would all but wipe out the Liberals. The result prompted restlessness in the Victorian party over concerns the opposition could lose more seats than it currently holds – 27 of 88 in the lower house.

“In the past two weeks something has changed,” one Melbourne-based Liberal MP said.

“People realise he (O’Brien) could hurt them.”

An Ipsos poll published in The Age in October showed 15 per cent of Victorians surveyed approved of the Opposition Leader’s performance during the pandemic. The finding compared with 52 per cent for the Premier, but was similar to the level of support for other opposition leaders around the country who have struggled to draw attention away from incumbents during the health and economic crises.

State Liberal MPs recently attended a three-day strategy meeting on the Mornington Peninsula and established four campaign policy groups to develop ideas before next year’s election.

In a departure from the 2018 election, the party is likely to focus on the economy and improving liveability rather than social policies and a tough law and order agenda.

One MP said Mr O’Brien had improved his political position in recent months.

“Those who are agitating need to put up or shut up,” one MP said.

Another MP, not regarded as an opponent of Mr O’Brien, said the party had alienated large cohorts of voters, including women and multicultural communities. He said Mr O’Brien’s leadership was the “elephant in the room” in conversations between MPs.

“He’s on borrowed time unless there’s a road to Damascus type change … All the party does is whinge,” he said.

One top Liberal and opponent of Mr O’Brien, who declined to be named, said the Opposition Leader had been too cautious since the opposition resoundingly lost the last election and had “not sought to redefine the party at all or release any meaningful policies”.

“He’s a person of no ideas … [and] you can’t fatten a pig on market day,” he said.

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