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View from The Hill

Turnbull and the Liberals put Macfarlane and the Nationals in their place

Ian Macfarlane’s lunge at a comeback has gone dreadfully wrong. Dan Peled/AAP

Friendship is the bronze coin of politics rated, in a crunch, well below the silver and gold currency of self-interest, whether personal or party.

Malcolm Turnbull dropped his long-term friend Ian Macfarlane from cabinet to the backbench not for reasons of performance but because he wanted to maximise renewal.

Macfarlane hatched a plot, for which he won the backing of Nationals leader Warren Truss and his deputy Barnaby Joyce, to one-up his old mate Turnbull and re-enter cabinet by the door reserved for Nationals.

Now Turnbull has thwarted the move for Macfarlane to switch from Liberal to National by securing the numbers in a close vote of the Queensland Liberal National Party (LNP) executive to stop it. LNP President Gary Spence said the executive had put first the need to maintain the “great stability” in the federal Coalition.

It’s been a ruthless set of manoeuvres all round, creating new strains within the Coalition and exposing existing ones. It is likely to have some ongoing fallout.

Turnbull is the only immediate winner. Whenever a reshuffle comes this term he won’t have to accommodate an extra National in his cabinet. He has routed Macfarlane and his backers, and shown that in a stoush with his minor Coalition partner he will fight to kill.

For Macfarlane it is a dreadful end to a long political career – whether that comes with a byelection or his retiring at the election. A lunge at a comeback went dreadfully wrong. Perhaps he misjudged that old friendship; maybe he thought that because of their past closeness, Turnbull would not be unhappy to see him back dressed in new clothes.

If the plot had gone according to plan, Truss would have been able to stand down from the leadership of the Nationals next year having delivered them an additional cabinet number, no small achievement.

But there was more to it than that. Truss worries about the leadership going to Joyce, who is considered to have the numbers to succeed him. Macfarlane being in cabinet might have been a steadying hand on Joyce.

Both Truss and Macfarlane are from Queensland so it would also have brought into the Nationals a senior Queenslander before Truss retired from parliament at the election, as he wants to do.

Nevertheless, Truss was cautious about the Macfarlane plan and what it could mean for relations with Turnbull. His doubts, which in the end he did not act on, have been vindicated.

Now he has been left looking a plotter – he did not forewarn Turnbull about Macfarlane’s intentions – and an ineffective one at that. He thought the numbers were there to have Monday’s meeting of the LNP executive, which he attended, approve the switch and was taken by surprise when they were not.

Truss would be chagrined to have a bungle become the legacy of his last few months as leader, assuming he goes ahead with stepping down from the post in the new year.

Joyce, who was blamed for the premature leak of the plot, which was seen as one factor in its derailment, has also been embarrassed. He was highly enthusiastic about the plan, seeing it as contributing to “growing” the Nationals.

At the weekend Joyce, formerly a Queensland senator but now occupying the NSW seat of New England, went to Groom to spruik for Macfarlane when his local electoral organisation met. It endorsed the proposed switch by 102 to 34 or 35.

The battle is also expected to cause tensions in the Queensland LNP, given that this strong grassroots feeling was disregarded.

When Turnbull became prime minister, the Nationals – distrustful of Turnbull – extracted a written agreement from him on various policy issues, including climate change and same-sex marriage. They thought they were clever at the time. But when they tried a highly provocative numbers game they found they had met more than their match. The mutual suspicion is not likely to subside but if it grows, it could be dangerous.

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