Coalition MPs may not be plotting to topple Scott Morrison but succession jockeying is absolutely under way

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<span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

On Monday, news photographers returned chuckling after an early assignment because the defence minister, Peter Dutton, had been seen smiling, spontaneously, in daylight, apparently without effort.

Dutton smiling is a persistent Canberra in-joke. Back in 2018, when the right faction came for Malcolm Turnbull, and Dutton was the candidate, the hard man of the Liberal party thought – and said – he needed to smile more and “maybe show a different side to what I show when I talk about border protection”.

This pitch, both calculated, and guileless, was so clickable and shareable BuzzFeed produced the definitive ranking of all Dutton’s smiles. Number one was the “just-joined-the-backbench-after-running-for-PM smile”.

Dutton’s unprovoked smiling on Monday was clocked in the context of Scott Morrison’s fraught final parliamentary fortnight. With an election now in sight, Labor wants to pin the prime minister as a liar and is firing daily kill shots from Morrison’s back catalogue.

Related: Scott Morrison evades Labor questions on use of ‘Shanghai Sam’ moniker before outright denial

Bookending Labor’s character test is internal disunity noisy enough to create the impression Morrison isn’t in full command of his troops. Morrison is battling an insurrection over vaccination mandates because some of his MPs are worried about bleeding votes to Clive Palmer and Pauline Hanson. To straddle internal and external pressure, Morrison has been positioning against his own interventionist record during the pandemic, which is unhelpful, to put it mildly, given that was the period when he was most popular.

Moderates have also found their voices. MPs sick of Nationals dictating the government’s climate policy (and then pretending they oppose it to signal cultural affinity with voters in the Hunter and regional Queensland) are also disinclined to be quiescent boys and girls on religious discrimination to facilitate a culture war Morrison thinks he needs with Labor.

If you watch politics from a distance, you’ll certainly hear the clamour. Up close, the impression is pervasive exhaustion. MPs are tired. Senior ministers – now running on backup battery power after grinding away on the pandemic response, the climate policy pivot, and the other pressing problems of the year – are now working flat out to neutralise feckless screeching about vaccine totalitarianism that stands between them and a brief Christmas respite.

Morrison is always relentless. He’s a human bulldozer. On Wednesday, he fired up in question time. But he looks weary as well. Earlier in the week, the prime minister swung (and missed) at Anthony Albanese when Labor provoked him on his now infamous Hawaiian holiday in the middle of catastrophic bushfires. Morrison was forced to clean up his own mess.

It’s bumpy enough for Morrison to have issued the pro forma disunity is death homily to government MPs during their regular party room meeting on Tuesday. Morrison also delivered what he hoped would be a mind-focusing comparison. The coming election could either be the contest in 2004, where the Liberals came from behind and smashed the “new sensation” Mark Latham, or it could be 2007, where the rout was so substantial John Howard lost his own seat.

“It’s up to us,” the prime minister said. Actually, ultimately, it’s down to the voters.

Speaking of voters, Labor’s truth and trust strategy is pitched predominantly at swinging voters inclined to be disenchanted with the prime minister and his rolling brinkmanship.

But the trust sortie is also pitched at Liberals – because politics is a confidence game. This point might require a little unpacking.

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Morrison’s central pitch to any colleagues inclined to doubt is: Trust me, I know how to win. I won when you doubted me in 2019. If you back me, I’ll do it again. The prime minister is asking MPs to take him on trust. But if trust gets eroded, if he looks vulnerable to a kill shot, subordinates can begin to doubt the durability of Morrison and his electoral miracles, and in that environment, politics enters a period of every man and woman for themselves.

We know there are a few iron-clad propositions in politics. The first is that existential doubt is an accelerant of ill-discipline in the major parties.

The second involves the base. When Liberal leaders start signalling comity with the base in the way Morrison currently is – preaching the case for freedom and for government to get out of people’s faces when five minutes ago he said the opposite – it points to trouble, either internal or external.

Related: More voters say Labor better at managing economy for everyday Australians, poll suggests

Polls suggest Labor is in the contest. So there’s a degree of external trouble.

But if colleagues are plotting pre-election to replace Morrison with another frontman (which sounds like a wild killing season conspiracy theory until you remember this exact refresh has happened with brutal precision before the past two elections) – it is happening so quietly that people who should know about it profess total ignorance. Obviously, this is politics. All things are liable to change without notice, but right now these characters look too spent to plot.

What is absolutely happening, however, is succession jockeying for whenever any leadership question becomes relevant – and that’s where we return to Dutton.

The Queenslander had a fallow period after he lost the prime ministership contest to Morrison. There were complaints around the government Dutton wasn’t pulling his weight in times of adversity, seemingly content to leave Morrison out there. But the Queenslander in recent months has been back, assertive and present, with his loud hailer, picking political fights and looking generally content with his lot.

Also busy busy busy is the Victorian Josh Frydenberg. The treasurer is genuinely loyal to Morrison and has worked to maintain a good relationship with him, which isn’t a given between prime ministers and treasurers. But when the moment presents, he wants to be prime minister of Australia. This is a core life plan. No ifs, buts or maybes.

Given this is the reality, we can end by reminding ourselves of the third iron-clad rule of Australian public life. Politics, for the restless, for the ambitious, is always a game of opportunity.

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