Game (theory) of thrones in the Liberal leadership spill

There’ll be a lot of strategic thinking going into the vote during the Liberal leadership spill. AAP

How might Liberal MPs vote in the upcoming leadership spill? The answer to that question is vastly more complicated than it might seem.

Ostensibly, they will be voting for the best political leader amongst them. In that case, there are many qualities they might look for in a political leader.

For example, he or she must be endowed with sound political judgement, have the ability to sell political ideas to the public, be a good communicator, be popular (within the party and with the public at large), possess a certain amount of charisma and, of course, be a good leader.

It’s fair to say that the candidates in question (most likely Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull) have each of these qualities in differing degrees. So which candidate should they choose? Which characteristics are the most important? The Liberal MPs need to vote on who they want for their leader all things considered.

That is, they need to weigh the various qualities they’re looking for and vote for the person who is the better candidate overall. Such complicated multi-dimensional decision making is difficult, but it is familiar —- it’s something we all do regularly. The Liberal MPs ought to have no difficulty, if this is all they’re voting on.

What’s in it for me?

But there is something else the vote might be about. Namely, the Liberals MPs might be voting for their own individual political futures: each MP might consider which potential leader is most likely to help advance his or her own career.

Arguably, this line of thinking is playing some role in Joe Hockey’s (current) loyalty to Tony Abbott. It is hard to see Hockey staying on as treasurer if Abbott goes. So, besides all other considerations, it’s in Hockey’s interests to vote for Abbott.

This kind of strategic voting complicates matters because the best leader in terms of leadership qualities may not happen to be the best person for advancing a given MP’s career.

It gets even messier. No-one wants to publicly back a loser. Hockey may well tie his wagon to Abbott on strategic grounds, but that will do Hockey precious little good if Abbott loses the party-room vote.

What this forces the Liberal MPs to do is to second-guess the way their colleagues will vote. They are forced into what economists and mathematicians call “a game”, where one’s decision is no longer entirely in one’s own hands —- one must also consider the likely responses of other players in the game.

Just as a tennis player needs to consider what their opponent’s response to a shot will be (and their response to the opponent’s shot and so on) before they play the shot in question, so it will be in the Liberal party room on Monday.

The Liberal MPs may well be voting for the person who they believe will win the very election they are voting in. No doubt there’s been a great deal of number-crunching behind the scenes over the weekend. Indeed, no-one will want to officially challenge Abbott unless they are reasonably sure they will have the votes to win.

The best prize you can get

You might think that all they should be considering is who has the best chance of leading them to victory at the next federal election. All other things being equal, each MP will be better off as a member of government. But all things are not always equal.

Some MPs might be tempted with a higher profile role in the opposition than being a back-bencher in the government. Of course, no one will admit to such individualist thinking; officially, at least, it’s always about the party. But in the dog-eat-dog world of politics it’s hard to set one’s own career completely to one side. Such issues must be in the minds of at least some of the Liberal MPs this weekend.

Given that at least one Liberal MP seems to have a hard time keeping track of who his colleagues are, this might all be just too much for the Liberal Party to manage.

If so, that might be a good thing. For surely what most Australians want is for the Liberal Party to settle its leadership problems swiftly by choosing the best person for the job.

In this case, we do not want strategic voting of any kind. We don’t want them voting for who will best advance their careers, nor do we want them voting for who they think is likely to win the party-room vote. But I fear that the vote on Monday may be every bit as messy as described here.