Tony Abbott between a rock and a hard place over Bishop

I would like a picture of the pickle that Tony Abbott is in. Must be pretty.

Having chosen the person least likely to be impartial as speaker, he is now suffering the effects of this politically and constitutionally inept decision.

Bishop has been a travel expense rorter along with the best of the wedding guests, including Abbott himself, so it should have been no surprise that given greater latitude, she would have taken it.

Now all her chickens have come home to roost.

 Some of Bronwyn Bishop's chickens coming home to roost
Some of Bronwyn Bishop’s chickens coming home to roost

Abbott is now in a situation where his every option is politically unpalatable.

He can sack Bishop or at least force her to resign. This would effectively mean handing a victory scalp to Opposition leader Bill Shorten, who can be expected to make maximum political mileage out of Bishop’s departure.

However, this is probably the least politically damaging of all of Ahbott’s options but it effectively means that he admits that the opposition’s claims were right and his support for the Speaker was wrong. It will also means abandoning one of his long-term supporters and political allies.

The alternative is to tough it out:  continue to support Bishop in the hope that the Department of Finance investigation of her travel expenses doesn’t turn up any other horrors, stare Bill Shorten down and hope that something else comes to dominate the 24-hour news cycle.

The difficulty with this approach is that there is likely to be a motion  of no confidence in the speaker from the cross bench when the House resumes. Andrew Wilkie and Clive Palmer being the likely sponsors such a motion.

If it comes to the crunch, the motion will probably lost on party lines. Abbott will work hard to ensure that the party remains united behind him. Whether or not he has the political capital to do this, remains to be seen.

It is obvious that a number of senior ministers, and probably a large number of the backbench, are particularly lukewarm in their support for Bronwyn Bishop who is not one to make friends easily.

So the critical question becomes: if it comes to a vote of no confidence, how many members of the government will cross floor?

The first problem for the Government is that unequivocal support for the Speaker would indicate that it considers the “paying the money back is apology enough” approach is sufficient. The difficulty is the Australian  electorate doesn’t appear to take this view.  Supporting Bishop would be a disaster electorally.

The second problem is that if the Department of Finance review throws up some other horrors. This will allow the Opposition will have a field day with the government’s support for the beleaguered speaker.

The third problem for Abbott is if members of his Cabinet draw a line in the sand and say,  “enough is enough, she has to go” and threaten to resign if he doesn’t sack her. Having senior Cabinet ministers returning to the backbench is a sure indication of a leadership challenge.

This is a particularly good issue for leadership hopeful Malcolm Turnbull  particularly if there is another poll that shows a further slide in  support for the government. A 56 –44% split would be disastrous but not  completely unthinkable after the disclosure of the Speaker’s appalling behaviour and Abbott’s defence of the indefensible.

So Abbott really has nowhere to turn.  Expect large helpings of humble pie to be served in the Prime Minister’s private dining room.

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