Horrified shudder runs through Liberal Party
THE great shudder running through the Liberal Party today is not just because it has lost a seat it had owned for 117 years.
It is also because of the realisation it now is stuck with a prime minister, right through to the next general election, who contributed to that loss.
The Liberals' humiliation in Wentworth was caused by both the departure of Malcolm Turnbull and the arrival of Scott Morrison. And as a consequence Mr Morrison has to deal with the uncertainty of a hung Parliament and the unending burden of a still-divided Coalition.
The Wentworth disease, in varying strengths, is sure to spread to Liberals in other electorates.
It's not his fault entirely.
A handful of vigorously self-burnished egos in the Liberal Party believed the government was heading to ruin in the next election. So they kicked out Malcolm Turnbull and confirmed their ruination forecast.
Prime Minister Morrison last night made a crass comparison between the courageous survivors in the Invictus Games and the battered Liberals of Wentworth.
"Tonight I had the great privilege to be joining those - and I don't want to make a political point out about this - at the Invictus Games. But Invictus is all about the indomitable spirit. That's what it's about. And we pay tribute to all of those who were there this evening and will contest over the next week," he said.
"But you know, we've got an indomitable spirit in this party."
The difference of course is the servicemen and women were wounded by the enemy; the Liberals' wounds were self-inflicted.
Related: Malcolm Turnbull haunts Liberals
Still, Scott Morrison must carry substantial responsibility for the shellacking in Wentworth, and this is supported by a ReachTEL poll of 847 Wentworth voters late in August.
The residents were asked how they would vote in the then-hypothetical situation of Mr Turnbull quitting and provoking a by-election. Just over 43 per cent said Liberal and 25 per cent Labor, the remainder split among Greens, One Nation and "others".
The question, an incidental part of a survey on policy commissioned by the CFMEU, was asked on August 23. The next day Mr Turnbull stood aside and Mr Morrison won the leadership ballot against Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.
The following eight weeks radically changed that projected vote.
An accumulation of self-generated Liberal instability and policy controversy since August 24 - plus the emergence of a high-profile independent in Kerryn Phelps - made sure the by-election was going to see the party smashed in what had been a political heartland.
And the magnitude of the Wentworth swing yesterday further indicates more than just a yearning for Turnbull was involved. The August 23 opinion poll put the Liberals gaining 57 per cent of the two party preferred vote. Last night the Liberals' 2PP share was around 48 per cent. In the 2016 election it was 67.75 per cent.
In further bad news for the Government, the election of Kerryn Phelps was a victory for Labor's third-candidate strategy. The ALP was never going to win Wentworth, but it could make sure a strong independent did. Expect Labor to again back independents in safe Coalition seats next federal election, to be called some time before next May.
The objective won't be to burden a potential Labor government with a big cross bench but to harness the disenchantment with major parties to reduce Coalition numbers.
And that general election won't come early, despite Labor's insistence the Wentworth result means one is needed now to impose political stability.
Mr Morrison won't be keen and should be able to operate without the government's previous one-seat majority. Wentworth has made sure he won't want the possibility of another soul-shredding election count.
And it is hugely unlikely new chum MP Dr Phelps will want to fight another election so soon. It is hard to see her backing a no-confidence motion unless something much greater than political convenience is concerned.
- Mal Farr is news.com.au's National Political Editor. Continue the conversation on Twitter @farrm51