PM intervenes to save Craig Kelly from preselection fight

"Rescued": Craig Kelly, speaking in federal parliament on Monday, has been spared a preselection contest for his seat of Hughes after he allegedly threatened to run as an independent. Picture: Mick Tsikas, AAP
"Rescued": Craig Kelly, speaking in federal parliament on Monday, has been spared a preselection contest for his seat of Hughes after he allegedly threatened to run as an independent. Picture: Mick Tsikas, AAP

Shire Liberal MP Craig Kelly will be re-endorsed to contest the seat of Hughes at the next federal election despite former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull trying to urge party bosses to sign a political death warrant for one of his chief tormentors.

The Liberal Party state executive voted on Monday to re-endorse all sitting members including, Mr Kelly, handing a win to Scott Morrison who had urged the factions to cancel preselection contests.

Mr Kelly was all but certain to be rolled by Sutherland Shire Councillor and moderates powerbroker Kent Johns in a grassroots preselection after losing control of his local branches. 

Cr Johns is a party vice president on the executive.

Mr Kelly had warned he could go to the crossbench if he lost the party's endorsement, compounding the Coalition's minority government status.

In a barrage of Tweets on Sunday, Mr Turnbull publicly admitted he had contacted party officials in a bid to scuttle Mr Morrison's plan to automatically re-endorse sitting MPs, describing the plan as the "worst and weakest" response to Mr Kelly's threats.

"I mean what the Prime Minister should be doing if Mr Kelly has made that threat, he should stand up to him and say 'if you want to go to the crossbench and create trouble that's your responsibility'. People have got to take responsibility for their own actions," Mr Turnbull said on Monday.

One moderate source said Mr Turnbull's public intervention - which also included him urging Mr Morrison to an early election to help clear the air and improve the Berejiklian government's chances of holding on when NSW voters go to the polls on March 23 - had backfired and locked in behind Mr Morrison to spare the PM an embarrassing loss.

Mr Kelly had been the chief party critic of Mr Turnbull's national energy guarantee, the policy that sunk his leadership in August.

In a position at odds with the Prime Minister’s claim in Parliament on Monday that Mr Kelly had not threatened to defect, Mr Morrison’s lieutenants and staff spent most of the weekend lobbying moderate members on the state executive to protect Mr Kelly because they feared he would abandon the Liberal Party and put the government at risk.

Mr Turnbull decried the snub to grassroots members and said any threat by Mr Kelly to defect should have been met with a stronger response.

With the relationship between Mr Turnbull and his successor damaged, MPs are bracing for more disputes ahead of next year’s election.

Moderate MPs said the treatment of Julia Banks, whose defection to the crossbench last week triggered a wave of criticism from conservative MPs, was very different to Mr Kelly, whose refusal to rule out resigning from the government prompted a rescue plan to save him.

Mr Kelly was facing certain defeat by shire councillor Kent Johns, who had the numbers among local members to topple the MP. Mr Johns said he accepted the decision but was disappointed.

And in a surprise move on Monday night, Mr Morrison called a snap party room meeting at Parliament House to unveil new leadership rules to make it tougher to remove sitting prime ministers. MPs agreed to a new system that would only permit a change of leader if two thirds of MPs wanted it.

Fairfax Media