Birmingham: Tony Abbott has told right-wing allies in Britain that he believes he has a reasonable chance of becoming prime minister again, Fairfax Media has learned.
The revelation confirms the former leader is hoping to emulate Kevin Rudd’s 2013 success in returning to the Lodge after being booted out by his own party, and despite Mr Abbott’s public assurances that his leadership is “dead, buried and cremated” and the “Abbott era is over”.
A senior Liberal source close to Mr Abbott said the former prime minister maintained a “good chance” of returning to the job because he is popular with the party membership compared to Malcolm Turnbull.
Mr Turnbull is widely perceived within the party to have failed to live up to expectations, scraped through the election with just a one-seat majority and continues to perform poorly in the polls.
The source said the outcome of the upcoming NSW state council of the Liberal Party on October 22 was an important opportunity for Mr Abbott to showcase to the parliamentary party his strength with the wider membership. There, his Federal Electorate Conference (FEC) will propose a motion for democratic reform of the party. It is likely to be opposed by moderates in the party, but has a greater chance of succeeding than ever before.
The change would enable the party membership, which is predominantly right-wing, to have a greater say in pre-selecting candidates.
Other Liberals did not rule out the possibility of an Abbott comeback, saying his prospects grow as Mr Turnbull fails to improve. They also said it would be difficult to sell a change to a new leader to the base, meaning if a change were to happen it could only feasibly be a reinstatement of the former prime minister.
The former PM is in London as part of an around-the-world tour that has taken him to Prague, New York and now London.
Mr Abbott has made his ambitions known during discussions with a number of conservative figures in the UK this week.
Fairfax Media has subsequently spoken to a number of those people, who said Mr Abbott believes he has a reasonable shot of returning to the top job.
If Mr Abbott were to return, it would spell bad news for deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop. Fairfax Media has also learned Mr Abbott is describing the Foreign Minister to associates abroad in unflattering terms.
Ms Bishop fended off a right-wing challenge to her position when Mr Abbott was unseated and denied claims she was disloyal and played a role in his demise. Ms Bishop’s chief of staff attended a meeting of the plotters on the eve of the coup, but the minister insists her staffer was there to observe the proceedings and did not participate.
Although Ms Bishop’s position is elected by the partyroom – where she remains popular – there would be serious questions about whether she could serve as Mr Abbott’s deputy.
Mr Abbott has completed a string of backflips on key totemic issues for conservatives, including his admission that he is “quietly thrilled” with the Brexit result despite opposing it prior to the vote. His original position dismayed his allies in the Leave campaign.
After he finished speaking at a fringe event at the Tory conference, Mr Abbott refused to answer when asked by Fairfax Media if he wanted the leadership back. He later responded to the story on Twitter.
As for unsourced, unattributed, unprofessional reports, the journalist in question is yet again making things up.
— Tony Abbott (@TonyAbbottMHR) October 4, 2016
Abbott responds after refusing to deny earlier. And of course I absolutely stand by my story and sources. https://t.co/DNuQRY0Vl5
— Latika M Bourke (@latikambourke) October 4, 2016
Mr Abbott’s prime ministership finished after just two years when a majority of his own party voted to replace him with Mr Turnbull in September 2015.
Mr Turnbull was asked about the Abbott leadership claims on Wednesday but declined to comment, saying: “I’m not going to be drawn on interesting gossip or even uninteresting gossip.”