Liberal leadership challenge stalls as plotters forced to keep their distance

Health restrictions banning large gatherings at Parliament House have halted a new plan to challenge Victorian Liberal leader Michael O’Brien for the party’s top job.

State Parliament is set to resume next week, with the presiding officers – the Speaker and the President – due to release health advice on Friday that will include limits on gatherings at Parliament House.

Victorian Liberal leader Michael O’Brien has already seen off one challenge this year.Credit:Scott McNaughton

To challenge Mr O’Brien’s leadership, half-a-dozen Liberal MPs would need to back a motion to suspend standing orders and bring on a secret ballot at a meeting of the parliamentary Liberal Party scheduled for next week.

Several Liberal MPs, speaking to The Age on condition of anonymity, said that meeting was now expected to be held online, potentially saving Mr O’Brien from a new challenge.

“With the four-square-metre [density limit] rule in place there is no room at Parliament House big enough for us to meet in person next week,” one Liberal MP said.

“It makes it impossible for there to be a spill.”

Another Liberal MP said there had been discussions about whether a meeting could be relocated to a larger room away from Parliament House that could safely hold all 31 Liberal MPs.

“It’s still an option if restrictions stay in place, although it’s hard to see how it could work,” another Liberal MP said.

Before the winter break, Mr O’Brien’s grasp on the leadership again appeared to be slipping, with a growing number of Liberals urging former leader Matthew Guy to take back the job before next year’s state election.

A recent spat over border closures caused further friction within the opposition, when Mr O’Brien criticised the state government for being too slow to close the border to NSW amid the growing COVID-19 outbreak in Sydney.

Matthew Guy led the Liberals to a crushing defeat at the last election but he has been tipped for a return to the top job.Credit:Justin McManus

Mr O’Brien’s criticism came just weeks after Mr Guy attacked the Andrews government’s plan to shut the border to NSW.

Mr Guy, who led the party to a crushing election loss in 2018, has so far ruled out returning to the top job but many of his colleagues believe support for the former planning minister has grown in recent months.

In March, former shadow minister Brad Battin’s bid to take the leadership from Mr O’Brien was defeated 22 votes to nine, with Liberal MPs Nick Wakeling, Ryan Smith and Richard Riordan backing the spill motion.

Six MPs told The Age they now believe between 12 and 15 Liberal MPs have indicated they would support a leadership change – just shy of the majority needed.

Brad Battin failed in his bid for the leadership earlier this year.Credit:Simon Schluter

Most Liberal MPs believe the party remains loosely split into three groups: those who support Mr O’Brien; those who would support Mr Guy’s return; and a powerful bloc loosely aligned to Mr Battin.

Since the failed spill in March, that third group is believed to still desire a leadership change, with its members increasingly open to supporting Mr Guy should he agree to run.

In the final sitting week before the winter break, Mr Guy was seen holding private discussions with Mr Smith, one of Mr Battin’s key backers, despite reports the two former Napthine government ministers had fallen out.

The meeting has fuelled speculation that some of Mr Battin’s supporters would be willing to back Mr Guy if he agreed to be a candidate in a new challenge.

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