Leadership rumblings in the Nationals are expected to come to a head on Monday, with opponents of Barnaby Joyce saying he could retake the top job.
The other most likely leadership contender, David Littleproud, has told colleagues that as deputy leader he cannot challenge Michael McCormack. But Littleproud could be clear to run if McCormack spilled his own leadership or chose not to stand again after a successful no-confidence motion in the Nationals party room.
Concern that under McCormack the Nationals have lost influence in the Coalition government is longstanding. In February 2020 McCormack narrowly fended off a leadership challenge from Joyce in a party room spill.
Discontent swelled again last week due to McCormack’s lacklustre performance as acting prime minister and perception within the Nationals that he left the resources minister, Keith Pitt, and the senator Bridget McKenzie to make the case against a more ambitious emissions reduction target.
Weeks of leadership rumblings are expected to come to a head on Monday, as the sitting week before the winter break provides the last opportunity to change leader before a possible spring election.
Two Nationals MPs have told Guardian Australia that Joyce has or is very close to having the numbers to topple McCormack.
“I think he’s really close,” one supporter of McCormack said. “I think he’s always been close but I have heard increased noise over the last two weeks.”
The assessment that Joyce is close to victory is shared by the Littleproud camp, but Littleproud has told colleagues that, as deputy, he cannot run against McCormack.
Pitt, who returned to the ministry in February 2020 after the Joyce-ally Matt Canavan quit to destabilise McCormack’s leadership, is another possible contender.
McCormack is digging in, telling Guardian Australia on Saturday although fresh intrigue may be afoot he was focused on business. “I’m concentrating on doing my job – that’s what I’m concentrating on,” he said.
“We are in the middle of a pandemic. If other people have other agendas, that is a matter for them.”
Joyce resigned as Nationals leader in February 2018 after scrutiny of his personal life due to an affair with former staffer Vikki Campion and a separate sexual harassment complaint, an investigation into which produced no conclusion. Joyce repeatedly denied the allegation.
Joyce has long harboured an ambition to return the top job but thus far he has lacked the numbers because he is a divisive figure with colleagues.
The member for Mallee, the Nationals MP Anne Webster, warned that voters in her electorate just wanted the Nationals to get on with the job: “We don’t need the instability. People in my electorate want me to work to protect their interests.”
A second stint as Nationals leader by Joyce could herald a renewed feud within the Coalition over climate, as Joyce has adopted a stridently pro-coal position since his return to the backbench.
The Nationals’ hostility to climate action is a persistent source of angst with a number of Liberal party MPs, who want Scott Morrison to champion more assertive action.
On Thursday Pitt stood up to the Liberals by warning that the government had “not committed to net zero by 2050” and the Nationals’ approval had not been sought for such a target.
McCormack told the Conversation last week that his party would not be embracing a 2050 target as a firm commitment in the run-up to COP26 climate talks in Glasgow in November.