Malcolm Turnbull has effectively flagged he would be a candidate if the leadership became vacant in a successful spill on Monday.
Although remaining coy about his intentions, Turnbull told reporters: “If, for whatever reason, the leadership of a political party is vacant then any member of the party can stand, whether they be a minister or a backbencher, without any disloyalty to the person who’s leadership has been declared vacant.”
Earlier, Tony Abbott brought forward the vote on the spill motion to Monday at 9am from the scheduled Tuesday party meeting.
Abbott’s move was designed partly to avoid uncertainty dogging the parliament’s first question time for the year, but equally to prevent critics being given the maximum chance to mobilise against him.
But the move backfired when some MPs publicly attacked it and Turnbull described it as a “captain’s call” – the language used previously to describe Abbott’s unilateral decisions, most recently the knighthood for Prince Philip.
News Corp chief Rupert Murdoch has bought into the leadership imbroglio, tweeting: “Abbott, good guy, not perfect but no case for rebellion. Remember last one gave us Gillard disaster. Country still paying for it.”
In early morning comments outside his Sydney home before the Abbott announcement, Turnbull said Abbott had shown “great respect” for the party room by not changing the party room’s meeting time.
Turnbull said Abbott – who indicated on Saturday he expected to stick to the Tuesday timing – would know MPs “will want to have the opportunity to sit down and talk to each other in the nation’s capital, in the course of that Monday leading up to the Tuesday”.
But Abbott on Sunday morning said: “It is important to end the uncertainty at the very beginning of the parliamentary sitting week.”
Abbott said the “only question for our party is do we want to reduce ourselves to the level of the Labor Party in dragging down a first-term prime minister”.
Pressed on whether he would be a candidate in the event of a successful spill, Turnbull said the leadership of the Liberal party “is uniquely the gift of the party room”.
“I’m talking to my colleagues and I know that other senior members of the party are doing that.”
Turnbull and deputy leader Julie Bishop, whose position would also be open if the spill succeeded, met at a function on Sunday.
Ministers Mathias Cormann and Josh Frydenberg were out on the Sunday morning TV shows seeking to shore up support for Abbott.
Former minister Arthur Sinodinos supported the spill and also criticised the decision to bring the vote forward. “Tuesday would have given us more time to ventilate the issue,” he said. “It would be better to show respect for colleagues by sticking to the normal time.”
In strong comments, Queensland MP Teresa Gambaro said: “We cannot govern ourselves in an internal climate of fear and intimidation. And that is the unacceptable situation we have endured for the past five years.”
Joe Hockey, who would lose his Treasury portfolio under a new leader, said there had been enough talk about the leadership issue. “The moment we walk into the parliament tomorrow is the moment we need to get on with the job,” he told Sky.
Hockey said there had been discussion “with a number of members of the leadership group” about the change of timing, and “Julie Bishop was consulted this morning on the final decision”.
Hockey also said that under the Westminster system frontbenchers had an obligation to vote against the spill. “If people do not support that position it’s their obligation to resign from the frontbench.”
Abbott is having a number of meetings on Sunday. It was reported his discussions included talks with dissidents.