A feisty Malcolm Turnbull has billed today's Liberal leadership showdown as a life-and-death tussle between progressive and conservative forces, even though his friend and fellow moderate Joe Hockey remains poised to emerge victorious.
Mr Hockey was yesterday unable to convince Mr Turnbull to go quietly and though he ruled out a direct challenge in an hour-long meeting between the pair, Mr Hockey intends being a candidate if - as expected - a majority of the Liberal party room votes for a leadership spill.
Liberal MPs believed Mr Turnbull would muster a maximum 20 votes, out of a possible 85, in a fight with the popular Mr Hockey, but the number-crunching was thrown into disarray last night when Tony Abbott said he would contest the ballot.
Mr Abbott had previously stated he would withdraw if Mr Hockey stood for leader.
The anti-Turnbull forces, led by the Liberal Party's chief climate-change denier Nick Minchin, offered to lock behind Mr Hockey if he agreed to defer the Senate's emissions trading scheme until after the Copenhagen climate change talks.
But Mr Hockey refused to make this commitment, fearing it would be equated to climate-change denial as Mr Turnbull had said, and after summoning Senator Minchin and other senior Liberals, including Julie Bishop, Greg Hunt, Andrew Robb, Chris Pyne and Peter Dutton, proposed giving Liberal senators a free vote on the ETS.
This approach would ultimately see the Government's legislation passed, given there are up to a dozen Liberal senators in favour of passing the ETS.
Mr Abbott said while Mr Hockey was entitled to place conditions on his candidacy, "it is just not possible for a credible party to have a free vote".
It means today's Liberal leadership contest is between a pro-ETS candidate (Mr Turnbull), the anti-ETS Mr Abbott and Mr Hockey, whose clear preference is for the party to support passage of the legislation.
In another feisty media performance, Mr Turnbull said the leadership vote would determine the party's future."The Liberal Party has to be a party of today and tomorrow. If it is going to be a relevant, credible political organisation, it has to be a progressive political movement," he said. "You cannot be a policy-free zone on climate change and be credible."
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