05 April 2016
by James Massola

Kevin Andrews prepared to challenge Malcolm Turnbull for leadership

Former defence minister Kevin Andrews.

Former defence minister Kevin Andrews has sparked a fresh outbreak of Liberal Party disunity after suggesting he was prepared to challenge Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and then claiming to have been taken out of context in an interview with his local paper.

But even as he played down the report in the Manningham Leader, Mr Andrews, a key supporter of former prime minister Tony Abbott, raised eyebrows in Liberal ranks as he declared "at the present time, Mr Turnbull is the prime minister".

With an election in prospect as soon as July 2 and amid regular outbreaks of Coalition disunity, the comments infuriated some Liberals, with one cabinet minister describing them as "truly bizarre", and another MP declaring Mr Andrews should "just f--- off".

Mr Andrews, a veteran MP first elected in 1991, made his comments about potentially challenging the Prime Minister, "if circumstances arose", after explaining why he had challenged Liberal deputy leader Julie Bishop in September 2015.

He said that, while there "wasn't anything particularly negative about Julie", he had decided to challenge because "there hadn't really been a contest for the deputy leadership".

Ms Bishop thumped Mr Andrews by 70 votes to 30 in that deputy leadership contest.

On a possible future challenge for the leadership, Mr Andrews - who also unsuccessfully challenged Mr Turnbull in November 2009 for the job of opposition leader, clearing a path for Mr Abbott to take over days later - said that he would not set out "saying I want to be prime minister".

"It has never been my burning ambition to be the leader of the party, but if circumstances arose, which they did in both of those instances where I thought there should be a change or a contest, I am prepared to do it," he said.

He did not specify what those circumstances would be.

Supporters and allies of Mr Andrews in the conservative wing of the Coalition, who asked not be named, described his comments as "delusional" and laughed off a serious challenge.

A friend of the conservative MP said he did not think "any serious mischief was intended", while another said that if Mr Andrews planned to mount an imminent challenge "it's news to me".

Many other Liberal MPs simply declined to comment, on or off the record, arguing they did not want to give the conservative MP's provocative comments any further attention.

Later on Monday, Mr Andrews, who is currently participating in the "pollie pedal" charity fundraiser with Mr Abbott, claimed his comments had been taken out of context.

" It was talking about the past, the prime minister is the prime minister and he will lead us to the next election and that's quite clear," he told Channel Nine.

Play 0:00 / 1:26 Fullscreen Mute Greg Combet backs Kevin Andrews It's the 2012 spring carnival - and Labor minister Greg Combet reckons Kevin Andrews is a dark horse for the Liberal leadership. "At the present time, Mr Turnbull is the prime minister, he is the leader of the Coalition, he will take us to the next election." In a separate attempt to walk away from his incendiary comments, Mr Andrews said that he had answered a hypothetical question "and that's all it is and Mr Turnbull is the Leader and I support his Prime Ministership. I believe we'll win the next election". Opposition leader Bill Shorten seized on the comments as further evidence of disunity in Coalition ranks and added that "even I didn't see the Kevin Andrews for PM coming, although he's got form". "Now I never thought I'd say this but maybe the Liberal Party should have a look at Kevin Andrews. He couldn't be any worse than Malcolm Turnbull's proven to be," he said. Mr Andrews, along with Mr Abbott and former workplace minister Eric Abetz, has consistently chipped Mr Turnbull since the change of leadership in September and on Monday further stoked fears that a disaffected few could upset Mr Turnbull's chances of beating Mr Shorten.