Malcolm Turnbull had many weaknesses in politics, but his final act was a masterclass in destroying your political enemies

Photo: Stefan Postles / Getty Images

Malcolm Bligh Turnbull was never going to go quietly.

One of the common criticisms of Turnbull was that he had no political skills, but the last act of his political career suggests otherwise.

By deploying a range of stalling tactics and the well-timed seeking of some legal advice, Turnbull — taken for a political neophyte by some of his enemies — managed to annihilate an insurgency by professional politicians who have spent their careers in the Liberal Party machine.

Turnbull sensed the end of his personal career in politics but he was able to not just delay the end, but control it through ruthless tactical bastardry that was almost Shakespearean in its denouement.

There were three critical initiatives. First was his insistence on having sight of a petition signed by 43 MPs in order to call another partyroom meeting. But this was tied up with the other two manoeuvres.

Stefan Postles/Getty ImagesPeter Dutton

When more than 10 ministers resigned to him, he refused to accept the resignations of all but two — his challenger Peter Dutton, and the international development minister Concetta Ferriavanti-Wells. On refusing to accept their resignations he then asked for their assurance that they would support him if there was another leadership ballot.

From the partyroom vote on Tuesday, Dutton needed to secure another seven MPs to be assured of seizing power.

The ministers that offered their resignations did so because they had voted against him in the ballot.

But in saying he had been given assurances from the ministers that they would support him, he created enormous doubt over the real level of Dutton’s momentum and support.

He also announced he was seeking advice from the solicitor-general on Dutton’s eligibility to sit in the parliament because of the questions about his interests in childcare centres that received government funding.

The first sign the Dutton camp had a problem was when it became apparent that they were far off getting the 43 signatures, even though some of their supporters were insisting the trigger would be pulled on Wednesday.

Then on Thursday, Scott Morrison declared he would be a candidate for the leadership and it was clear there would be a real contest between Turnbull’s remaining supporters and the Dutton camp. Turnbull’s insistence on seeing the petition bought Morrison 24 hours to shore up support.

Julie Bishop’s candidacy, announced late on Thursday, further complicated the options for MPs and hurt Dutton’s prospects.

Speaking on Friday — looking entirely relaxed and comfortable — Turnbull made it absolutely clear that Morrison’s election as his successor was his preferred option. He said the “insurgents were not rewarded”, and that “instead my successor will be Scott Morrison, who was a very loyal and effective treasurer”.

As a result of their actions, Turnbull said, “the consequence is that instead of having Mr Dutton as prime minister, we should in due course have Mr Morrison.”

It’s telling that the snide comment already doing the rounds is that his successor, Scott Morrison, is “Malcolm Turnbull without the top hat”.

Turnbull doubtless had a problem connecting with voters, and the way his prime ministership ended shows that he couldn’t keep his party together. It ultimately ended in failure.

But he was not without political skill. Ask Peter Dutton, or Tony Abbott.

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