The Nationals have split into three camps over the leadership but there is a growing expectation the issue will come to a head at the end of this month when Parliament sits for the last two weeks before Christmas.
With leader Michael Mccormack being stalked by Barnaby Joyce, Mr McCormack went public on Thursday to defend his position. HIs core backers also pledged their support and hosed down talk of a challenge.
With the issue flaring just two days before the Wentworth byelection, Prime Minister Scott Morrison indicated a desire for the junior Coalition party to calm down and he expressed his support for the job Mr McCormack was doing.
Mr McCormack, who only took over in February after Mr Joyce stood down due to controversy over his private life, faces internal criticism for not cutting though with voters and lacking the fundraising clout of his predecessor.
Some Nationals have been especially critical of what they say is a lack of advocacy in cabinet for the establishment of a special agriculture visa which would see migrants sent to the regions to bolster regional economies.
The visa was believed to be dead, having been shot down on strategic policy grounds by a Cabinet worried it would undermine the existing Pacific Island seasonal worker scheme at a time when Australia faces a challenge from China for regional influence.
In coming to Mr McCormack’s defence on Thursday, Mr Morrison said the visa remained a live option.
He said the leadership was a matter for the Nationals but “the Coalition between the Nationals and the Liberals has never been stronger”.
“Of course we have been working towards an agricultural visa and we’ve got a plan for how to get there. And so Michael McCormack has been critical in that process and I continue to enjoy working with him and I think he does a fantastic job,” he said.
Mr Morrison’s endorsement appeared to have little impact on the internal machinations of the party.
After saying on Wednesday that he would take the job if offered, Mr Joyce stirred the pot again in Question Time on Thursday when he taunted Labor.
“I know that you find me endearing, I know you miss me, I know you want me back,” he said.
Mr McCormack was defiant all day.
“I have the majority support in the National Party,” he said.
“Not one National Party member has come to me and said they’re dissatisfied with anything.”
One source said if a vote were held today and everyone was forced to make a decision, Mr Joyce would receive up to 15 votes out of the 22 MPs and Senators and Mr McCormack would be “wiped out”.
But at the moment, there was still great uncertainty about whether Mr Joyce, who came undone because of an extramarital affair and an unfounded sexual harassment complaint, was sufficiently redeemed in the public eye.
There was a small core supporting Mr McCormack, mainly in Victoria and NSW, a hard core mainly from Queensland who would have Mr Joyce back straight away, and a larger middle which believed Mr Joyce needed more time, even until after the next election. By then, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud could be a contender.
Those who either publicly supported Mr McCormack or tried to hose down the talk included Victorian Darren Chester and Queenslanders Keith Pitt and Michelle Landry.
Mr Littleproud says he does not back a spill and will be playing no part in current events.
Ms Landry did conceded Mr Joyce had ambitions to return.
“Barnaby is keen down the track to take over the leadership… I’m sure at some stage in his career Barnaby will be leader again,” she told Sky News.
“Now is Michael’s time and I think Michael is doing a damn good job.”
Mr Chester, who is at daggers drawn with Mr Joyce, said there was no vacancy.
“I’d like to be drafted as full forward for the Sydney Swans but Buddy Franklin is there,” he said.
He said Mr Joyce has “had his chance as leader” and the party would be better served if Mr Joyce promoted the government and its interests, rather than his own.
The speculation over the Nationals leadership has left Liberal MPs furious coming on the eve of the crucial Wentworth byelection, which if the Liberal’s candidate Dave Sharma loses, would plunge the Coalition into minority government.
with Andrew Tillett