Abbott left deeply wounded by narrow victory

Prime Minister Tony Abbott arrived with a large group of MPs, including deputy leader Julie Bishop. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Tony Abbott has held at bay a move to depose him. The Liberal party room voted against a spill motion by 61 to 39 – but the narrow margin leaves the prime minister deeply vulnerable to later destabilisation.

Chief Government Whip Philip Ruddock announced the result about 15 minutes after 101 Liberal MPs gathered in the party room. He said there was one informal vote and one MP was absent.

The vote was immediately being interpreted as a bad result for the prime minister and posing immense problems for Abbott as he struggles to regroup. The substantial minority vote for the spill, moved by two backbenchers, came without Malcolm Turnbull formally declaring a leadership bid, although he made it clear he would be a candidate if the spill motion was carried.

Abbott addressed the meeting immediately after the vote, seeking to restore unity among his fractured troops. The vote for the spill was by secret ballot, with no debate beforehand.

Abbott arrived at the party meeting almost exactly on 9 o'clock, flanked by deputy leader Julie Bishop and accompanied by a phalanx of his ministerial and other backers.

The leadership crisis came after sustained bad polling. The government has struggled with an unpopular budget and the failure to get key measures, including its controversial higher education deregulation plan, through the Senate.

Criticism of Abbott’s leadership mounted over the summer, with his “backflip on a backflip” on the proposed Medicare changes.

The crisis came to a head after his “captain’s call” to appoint Prince Philip a knight and then a savage backlash against the LNP in the Queensland state election.

While the revolt was substantially driven by widespread backbench discontent about the Abbott style and deep fears that he would lead the Coalition to an election loss next year, Liberal senator Cory Bernardi told the ABC on Monday morning that “we have cabinet ministers who are ringing around claiming to represent Malcolm Turnbull in this spill”.

Bernardi claimed that if there was a change of leader, “then the Liberal Party base would depart the party and leave it in droves. They would rebel and seek something else.”

Monday’s Newspoll provided a grim backdrop to the vote, showing Labor leading the government 57-43% in two-party terms and the Coalition primary vote at 35%. Abbott’s disapproval rating had hit 68%, and Bill Shorten led him as better prime minister 48-30%.

Queensland MP Ross Vasta was absent from the meeting because his wife had just given birth.

Frantic lobbying continued until the last moment, as both camps tried to round up undecided MPs.

The vote came on the first day of the new parliamentary year, with Abbott and his wife Margie, as well as Shorten and many other MPs, attending a church service at which both Abbott and Shorten read lessons.

Abbott said before the meeting: “As of 9.30am we want to put the internals behind us and get on with being the elected government we were elected to be. To clean up Labor’s mess and to deliver for the Australian people the economic security, the national security that they deserve. That means a focus on jobs, families and economic growth.”

On the eve of the vote, former prime minister John Howard, Abbott’s mentor, came out with a strong appeal for him to be given further time.

Howard told The Australian: “I have been approached by quite a number of MPs to get my view and I have told them essentially that the commonsense reaction is to reject the spill motion and give the prime minister some time.”

In the lead-up to the vote, both the Abbott and Turnbull camps played a game of cats and mouse.

Abbott on Sunday announced that he was bringing the party meeting forward from Tuesday to Monday. Turnbull did not formally declare before the ballot whether he would be a candidate if the spill were carried, but he made it clear that he would be.

Queensland backbencher Andrew Laming said on Monday morning he had changed his view and decided to vote in favour of the spill rather than against, as he had previously intended. Western Australian Liberal MP Don Randall, the seconder of the spill, said before the meeting: “I can’t go to a shop without them saying to me ‘you guys have got to do something about your leader’.”