Malcolm Turnbull has slammed moves to save outspoken critic Craig Kelly from defeat at Liberal preselection, describing intervention by senior Liberals as weak.
After a week of chaos for the Coalition, Prime Minister Scott Morrison moved to save the embattled Sydney backbencher over the weekend, deploying staff and supporters to prevent the Hughes MP from certain defeat at the hands of moderate Liberal rival and Sutherland Shire mayor Kent Johns.
The Liberal Party had delayed a preselection vote in the seat until early 2019, amid fears Mr Kelly would quit and move to the crossbench if he lost.
A near ubiquitous presence in the media, Mr Kelly agitated against the former prime minister’s leadership and was a leading critic of the dumped national energy guarantee policy.
On Sunday night, Mr Turnbull used Twitter to describe efforts to invoke emergency powers to override local Liberals as “the worst and weakest response” to the threat of a defection by Mr Kelly.
“Today I learned there was a move to persuade the State Executive to re-endorse Craig Kelly as Liberal candidate for Hughes in order to avoid a preselection — in other words to deny Liberal Party members in Hughes the opportunity to have their say,” Mr Turnbull wrote.
“I subsequently spoke with several State Executive members to express my strong view that the party’s democratic processes should operate in the normal way especially after such a long debate in the NSW Liberal Party about the importance of grass roots membership involvement.”
Mr Turnbull said News Corp papers were preparing to report his discussions on Monday.
“So rather than wait for their version of events to be published tomorrow, I can state that I am strongly of the view that the normal democratic process should proceed,” he wrote.
“It has been put to me that Mr Kelly has threatened to go to the crossbench and “bring down the government”. If indeed he has made that threat, it is not one that should result in a capitulation. Indeed it would be the worst and weakest response to such a threat.
“It is time for the Liberal Party members in Hughes to have their say about their local member and decide who they want to represent them.”
Mr Turnbull himself intervened to save Mr Kelly before the 2016 election, recognition of his close links to Turnbull rival and former prime minister Tony Abbott.
In a letter to preselectors, Mr Turnbull said Mr Kelly was one of the government’s “most consistent performers”.
First elected in 2010, Mr Kelly chairs the Coalition’s backbench energy committee.
Mr Morrison has made it know he supports Mr Kelly being saved but risked being rebuffed.
Last week Mr Kelly ruled out a move to the crossbench before the next election, but left open the chance to run as an independent if he lost preselection.
Mr Abbott has threatened retribution if Mr Kelly was rolled.
“The only way we can win the election is if we have harmony inside our party and we sure ain’t going to have harmony if Craig Kelly gets rolled,” he said in June.
Mr Morrison will return to the disquiet after his visit to Argentina for the weekend’s G20 meeting.
A series of flashpoint await him including Liberal senator Jim Molan’s warning on Sunday that he is “not to be taken for granted” if his own political career isn’t saved by the Prime Minister.
The former soldier was relegated to an unwinnable spot on the NSW Senate last month.