Spill or no spill, Victoria’s Liberal party can agree on one thing: no more messiahs

<span>The Victorian Liberal party leader, John Pesutto, may be facing a spill but he has one thing working in his favour: a lack of a frontrunner to replace him.</span><span>Photograph: Diego Fedele/AAP</span>
The Victorian Liberal party leader, John Pesutto, may be facing a spill but he has one thing working in his favour: a lack of a frontrunner to replace him.Photograph: Diego Fedele/AAP

By all accounts, the Victorian Liberals are heading for another leadership spill. But true to form, the party room is divided over the details.

Following a month of discipline during the federal byelection in the seat of Dunkley, the disunity returned on Sunday as the state opposition leader, John Pesutto, announced two of his most senior staff had left his office.

Several Liberal MPs were quick to describe the departure of communications director Nick Johnston and chief of staff Rodrigo Pintos Lopez as akin to “shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic” or “rats jumping off a sinking ship”.

They said Pesutto had been issued an ultimatum by both Liberals and Nationals MPs unhappy with the pair’s performance: either they go or you do.

Other sources close to the pair said they chose to resign having become “fed up” with division in the Liberal party room and “constant criticism” levelled against them. They said the announcement was delayed to avoid any impact on the result in Dunkley.

On Monday, Pesutto sought to play down the saga.

“People come and go in political roles,” he said. “I’m sorry to see them go and they go with my best wishes.”

But Pesutto’s relaxed front belies his private efforts to shore up his leadership. Guardian Australia understands he has meetings planned with several MPs this week, ostensibly to “talk about priorities”.

Deeming saga a setback

Pesutto was elected leader of the Victorian Liberals in December 2022 – winning the party room ballot by one vote against Berwick MP Brad Battin.

At the time, he promised to bring the party room back together, after years of factional infighting between socially progressive and conservative members.

Related: Albanese says Liberal party lost Dunkley byelection because it ran a ‘fear campaign’ and is ‘dominated by blokes’

“People have different views. Those views need to be respected and they need to be heard and acted upon,” Pesutto said.

“I expect and embrace the idea that there are going to be different views about how we go forward.”

Three months later, his push to expel first-term MP Moira Deeming from the party room further deepened the divide.

Conservatives, as well as some moderate MPs unhappy with the handling of the expulsion, rallied around Deeming.

Several MPs told Guardian Australia on Monday the months-long saga was the “beginning of the end” for Pesutto.

“He staked everything on Deeming’s expulsion and in the end completely misread his level of authority over the party room,” said an MP who supports Pesutto.

Other issues raised by MPs included Pesutto’s lack of consultation, poor communication and bungled handling of major policy decisions, such as the party’s decision to walk back its support for a treaty with the state’s Indigenous people.

When questioned about the issues at a press conference on Monday, Pesutto said his party had “robust debates”.

“That’s the best way to arrive at common positions, and I have a party room that’s locked in behind some serious decisions that we’ve already announced this year and we’ll continue to do so.”

‘We’ve had enough messiahs’

Working in Pesutto’s favour, however, is the lack of a frontrunner to replace him.

While Battin remains the preferred candidate of the conservatives, Sandringham MP Brad Rowswell and Nepean’s Sam Groth have also been named as potential contenders.

Rowswell, currently the opposition’s shadow Treasury spokesperson, ran unsuccessfully in December 2022 for the deputy leader role, losing out to the incumbent David Southwick. Some MPs suggest he has more of a “broad appeal” in the party room than Battin.

Related: Spectre of irrelevance hangs over John Pesutto as backflip on treaty blind-sides Victorian Coalition MPs

Groth, meanwhile, is a former professional tennis player and one of two Liberals to win a seat from Labor at the election. Part of the “new guard” of MPs elected in 2022, he has previously urged the party to remain “modern and moderate”.

“He’s got the profile, he’s got the media experience and he’s got no baggage,” one MP said.

Another described Groth as “affable, articulate and driven – without a messiah complex”.

“We’ve had enough messiahs thinking they alone can turn the party’s fortunes around,” they said.

All three – Battin, Rowswell and Groth – denied they were planning to spill Pesutto when they arrived at a shadow cabinet meeting on Monday.

The timing of any potential spill remains contested among MPs, with some advocating for immediate action to avoid months of speculation and negative headlines while others suggested waiting until Pesutto had “no choice but to resign himself”.

One thing all MPs can agree on is that unlike the 2022 contest, when Pesutto scraped through, the result must be decisive.

Pesutto, however, remains resolute, stating on Monday: “I’m a fighter, I’m not going to be pushed around like this.”

Only time will tell.