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PM's backers try to douse leadership talk

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Malcolm Turnbull’s supporters insist the prime minister is “absolutely” safe and are talking down the chances of a leadership challenge.

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Cabinet minister Simon Birmingham has thrown his support behind Turnbull as internal divisions within the Coalition party room bubble to the surface.

Some conservatives have begun drifting towards Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton as their preferred leader.

But Birmingham insists the prime minister has support from the majority of the party room, despite his enemies stirring trouble over the government’s energy and company tax policies.

He urged a “handful of troublemakers” in Coalition ranks to pull their heads in.

“As long as we get on and focus on the things we are doing for Australians … there is no reason why we cannot get on and win the next election,” he told Sky News today.

Birmingham was among ministers summoned by Turnbull to Parliament House on Sunday night to discuss policy issues afflicting the government.

Dutton missed the dinner due to flight delays but arrived later to join discussions.

He is reportedly weighing up his options, despite publicly pledging support for the prime minister on Saturday.

Birmingham replied flatly “no” when asked whether Dutton would mount a challenge.

“Peter made a very clear public statement of support for the prime minister and the policies of the government – I take that at its word,” he said.

Adding further strain to Turnbull’s leadership are a string of poor public polls.

Monday’s Fairfax/Ipsos poll shows the Coalition’s primary vote has dropped from 39 to 33 in just a month, and Labor leading the coalition 55 per cent to 45 per cent on a two-party preferred basis.

Last week, Turnbull lost his 38th consecutive Newspoll, eight ahead of Tony Abbott’s losses and five more than the previous record losing streak for a federal government.

“You have to recognise that when a handful of individuals decide to go out and argue against the majority – the overwhelming majority opinion of the party room – that’s going to have some negative consequences,” Birmingham said.

Senior Liberal frontbencher Christopher Pyne says he is certain Turnbull has the backing of his cabinet and party room.

“He’s our best hope to beat Bill Shorten at the election next year,” Pyne told ABC radio.

The leadership chatter grew much louder last week after Dutton warned during a radio interview that further disagreements could lead to his resignation from cabinet.

In a bid to quell the bubbling unrest, the prime minister proposed a number of changes to his signature energy policy – but it has been criticised by some as a “captain’s call” done without consultation.

Queensland Nationals senator Barry O’Sullivan, who opposes the National Energy Guarantee, cheekily batted away questions about Turnbull’s leadership.

“I’m so temped but I just can’t trust myself,” he told reporters at Parliament House.

Liberal MP Craig Kelly, who has lobbied for changes to the National Energy Guarantee, gave Mr Turnbull his backing and said “there’s no leadership challenge at the moment”.

“The prime minister has my support – we’re looking forward to working through these issues we have with the National Energy Guarantee,” he told ABC radio.

During Sunday’s dinner in Canberra, the prime minister was also expected to float the idea of abandoning big business tax cuts if an upcoming Senate vote fails.

– AAP

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