Michael O’Brien’s Liberal leadership under threat as Matthew Guy makes his move

Victoria could have a new opposition leader within days as former Liberal leader Matthew Guy seeks the support of colleagues to topple leader Michael O’Brien in a party room coup his supporters are proposing to call as early Tuesday.

Mr Guy has been considering a return to the leadership for a number of months but has consistently and publicly denied he would seek the job he held between 2014 and 2018, culminating in a devastating election defeat to Premier Daniel Andrews.

Leadership tussle: Michael O’Brien, Brad Battin and Matthew Guy.Credit:Darrian Traynor, Daniel Pockett, Eddie Jim

Four Liberal Party sources, speaking anonymously to reveal internal party affairs, said the former leader had begun calling Liberal MPs on Sunday to seek their support to win back the leadership of the ailing state party. Sunday was the first time Mr Guy has told colleagues outside his inner circle that he intends to run.

Mr O’Brien fended off a leadership challenge from backbencher Brad Battin earlier this year after Mr Guy and his supporters voted against the rebel group. However, since that challenge, followers of Mr Guy and Mr Battin have put behind them a period of personal animosity in the attempt to improve the Coalition’s political prospects by removing Mr O’Brien.

Parliament is set to sit this week after a weeks-long break. However, it is not clear whether a full party room meeting will be able to be held due to density limits. Opposition MPs have sought advice from Parliament’s presiding officers to determine whether the full party room of 31 MPs can meet in the same room on Tuesday.

If the party room meeting cannot be held, party sources say Mr Guy’s supporters are determined to find any way to conduct the leadership spill. The state election is due to be held in November next year.

The party is effectively split into three groups. One coalesces around Mr O’Brien and includes key backers Kim Wells and Gary Blackwood. The second includes Tim Smith and James Newbury, who support Mr Guy’s return. The third group, which brought on the March coup attempt, is led by Ryan Smith, Richard Riordan and Brad Battin.

The latter two groupings have managed over winter to reconcile strong personal differences and the leadership team of a potential Guy-led opposition will include members of the Battin group.

The imminent challenge comes after a heated party meeting last week when Liberal MPs aired anger at being excluded from decision-making over the party’s policies.

The party held a strategy day on Friday and one senior member of the Parliamentary team said research presented by the Liberals’ head office showed the party was in a “solid” position to win the next election under Mr O’Brien.

“We have research to back it, advertising to prosecute it,” the source said. “The worst thing we could do is blow ourselves up by putting egos and factions ahead of Victorians when they need us more than ever.”

Polling by the Resolve Political Monitor last month showed Labor in an election-winning position, even though its primary was three points lower than it was at the 2018 poll. The poll showed the opposition had failed to capitalise on the repeated lockdowns over the past 18 months and remained on the same primary vote of 35 per cent that it recorded at the 2018 election.

Mr Guy is seen by supporters to have better political instincts and cut-through than Mr O’Brien. Some MPs think the former leader, who was heavily defeated in the 2018 poll, has more energy in front of the camera, an attribute that is crucial for relevance-deprived oppositions who have struggled to achieve success across the country during the pandemic.

However, Mr Guy will probably come under scrutiny for his rezoning decisions as planning minister in the previous Liberal government, as well as the infamous “lobster with a mobster” scandal sparked by his dining with an alleged mafia leader.

Mr O’Brien begun contacting MPs to shore up support on Sunday evening.

Neither Mr Guy nor his supporters were returning calls from The Age on Sunday night.

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