Grattan on Friday: Tony Abbott faces battle to avoid self-destruction

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has become a national laughing stock after knighting Prince Philip. AAP/Wayne King

If Tony Abbott were risk-averse, he wouldn’t have scheduled a National Press Club appearance for Monday. Or perhaps it was just another Abbott blind spot.

Of course when Abbott signed up to turning up, he hadn’t become a national laughing stock via Prince Philip’s knighthood. But he did know he’d be appearing two days after an expected big anti-Liberal swing in Queensland.

Thanks to Abbott’s crazy self-indulgence, and the backlash from colleagues and community, Monday’s stakes have been raised dramatically. He’ll have to perform extremely well to get back to any sort of even keel before parliament starts – and that will take a minor miracle.

Abbott needs what the political trade calls an “announceable”, although it’s not likely it would change the conversation. He must give a convincing account of his 2015 plans. But while he can talk about jobs and families, he doesn’t yet have a detailed policy. He can’t guarantee to deliver his universities policy. And what can he say about the (next) budget, or tax?

Meanwhile, Abbott will be copping a blast from Queensland (where on Thursday Labor seemed confident of taking Premier Campbell Newman’s seat), and he’ll face tough questions. Such as: how much will he campaign in NSW? Liberal polling shows he’s a negative there but he can’t and won’t be banned, as he was in Queensland.

One seasoned Liberal observer predicts that on Monday Abbott will be “chewed up”. We’ll see.

Among those monitoring his performance will be some harsh judges at News Corp. Abbott this week received a massive bruising from his closest media allies in that organisation, which the Coalition regards as part of its “tribe”.

News Corp papers – The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph and The Australian – have been constantly “fed” the news breaks by the government, briefed from the Prime Minister’s Office. Rupert Murdoch has been treated as a revered figure.

From the other side of the relationship, Abbott was a News Corp project, the leader to whom support was given and in whom high hopes were invested, the prime minister expected to prosecute a certain agenda.

But deep dismay has set in as the government flounders, Abbott struggles and becomes more unpopular, and the possibility looms that he could lose in 2016. Nor is there a prospect that he can or will deliver the desired, but politically impractical, agenda.

Abbott’s blunder over the knighthood has proved the last straw.

Murdoch this week called for Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, to quit (one political observer suggested it would have been better if Rupert had “made her an offer she couldn’t refuse”).

News Corp’s most influential conservative columnists have been feral. Such attacks are especially harmful because they’re from within the tribe. When Andrew Bolt said on Wednesday the Philip decision was “so damaging that it could be fatal”, his comments were treated by other media as a major news item.

Ministers have had to defend Abbott over the indefensible (while distancing themselves from the knighthood decision) as well as elevate the beleaguered Credlin to near political sainthood.

The week’s most innovative line came from Barnaby Joyce, who declared that “sometimes it’s the mistakes that prove the authenticity of the person”. That’s a hell of a stretch to find a silver lining.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne insisted the Coalition couldn’t have made it into government without Credlin, who “is absolutely intrinsic to our success” – which doesn’t say much for the efforts of the rest of them.

The fevered atmosphere makes it hard to know precisely where Abbott will be left when the story moves on. He’s lost an enormous amount of skin in a startling act of self-harm.

Talk is easy and there’s much of that. One Liberal MP says: “There’s a lot of undirected frustration and anger and disillusionment but it’s not heading in a particular direction.”

A party man observes: “No-one is out to knife him – there is no program to kill him,” adding that Abbott is “his own worst enemy”.

Just how bad an enemy to himself will Abbott prove to be? Before Christmas, he promised a better government this year. In the new year he’s been ringing around listening to backbenchers. But now once again he’s shown a lack of judgement and discipline, to say nothing of an instinct for self-preservation.

A Tuesday ReachTEL poll found 72% opposed the knighting of Prince Philip, and showed a dive in Abbott’s approval. That’s likely to be just the start of a polling nightmare.

The risk for Abbott is that he is dragged into a downward spiral from which he can’t recover. Some Liberals are saying his leadership is terminal.

It would be a huge thing for the Liberals to replace him. There’d be a big question around process – would there be a knock-down Labor-style fight? Not many leaders depart in the gentlemanly style of Ted Baillieu.

And the party would have to be pretty confident it would get the successor who could deliver the goods. Funny things can happen in Liberal ballots if there are multiple contenders.

There is chatter about Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop, who enjoy good polling support. They have grown closer recently. But if they teamed up, would it be Turnbull-Bishop or Bishop-Turnbull?

This week you have to wonder whether what’s happening in the government is real life or the plot for another Jessica Rudd novel.