Barnaby Joyce has been sensationally put on notice by a female colleague that his return to the leadership would go down like a lead balloon with women voters.
News.com.au understands that Mr Joyce is within one vote of reclaiming the leadership amid rising speculation there could be a move against Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack at Monday’s party room meeting in Canberra.
But there’s also a bloc of MPs who remain bitterly opposed to Mr Joyce returning to the leadership, leaving the door open to deputy Nationals leader David Littleproud to emerge as a compromise candidate or for a fizzer where nothing happens.
The former deputy prime minister resigned as leader three years ago after revelations of a relationship with a former staffer Vikki Campion and an investigation into a sexual harassment complaint that he strenuously denied.
At the time, he declared he was standing aside to protect his new partner and his family after he left his first wife, Natalie Joyce and moved in with his new partner.
His relationship with Ms Campion was one of the issues that sparked former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s infamous “bonk ban” against MPs having sex with staffers in their office.
In an exclusive interview with news.com.au, Nationals MP Michelle Landry said that voters had a “gutful” of the leadership circus.
But she also raised the prospect that some women within the party and in the broader community would not cop Mr Joyce’s rehabilitation as leader.
“I think that if he became leader again there would be women out there that would be unhappy with that,’’ Ms Landry said.
“It’s destabilising for everybody. Look, obviously there was a lot of feedback last time. I think he would have to tread carefully if he became leader again because there were women that weren’t happy.
“There were women out there who made accusations, none of that was ever proven but I do know there’s women who would not be happy.”
It is a matter of public record that Mr Joyce faced a sexual harassment claim in 2018. He was not found by the investigation to have committed any offence due to insufficient evidence.
Rural advocate Catherine Marriott has previously said she was “terrified” over what to do about the complaint but never explained in any detail what it related to or the incident she said it involved.
“He was a very popular Ag Minister at that time, and I didn’t … I was … I’m just a little human against a big system, and I was terrified,” Ms Marriott told the 7.30 Report.
At the time, Mr Joyce described the allegations against him as “spurious and defamatory”.
“I’m not going to start going through it, but I can — I have absolute clear recollection of everything from that day. I know the person very well. It is defamatory and I will leave it at that,” Mr Joyce said at the time.
But Mr Joyce said did not plan on suing Ms Marriott.
“What happens with defamation laws is when very rich people sue other very rich people because they have a solicitor … I have tried that path before, all that happens is you get a very big bill,” he said.
News.com.au has contacted Mr Joyce for a response to Ms Landry’s comments.
Ms Landry said it was also distressing for Nationals staffers who could all lose their jobs if there is a change in leadership.
“Look, I think people are just sick of this. We are paid for a job to run the country. It’s not only about the leadership role this is about (Nationals staff losing jobs. The average person doesn’t understand that,’’ she said.
“I don’t understand why this is being done.”
The magic number to force a vote on the Nationals leadership is 11 votes in the 21 strong party room and Mr Joyce appears to have at least 10 votes.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack told the ABC on Sunday night he was standing his ground.
“I’ve got no-one having called me and said, ‘It’s on.’ I have had no-one say to me, ‘There is a spill afoot,’” he said.
“Barnaby Joyce is doing a good job as a member for New England.”
As the Prime Minister Scott Morrison remains confined to the Lodge in Canberra under quarantine rules, leadership speculation is once again engulfing the Nationals.
Deputy Nationals leader David Littleproud is understood to have told colleagues he won’t challenge and won’t stand unless Michael McCormack quits.
Victorian Nationals MP Bridget McKenzie has led the charge last week raising concerns over Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s embrace of a tougher climate change policy calling for exemptions for agriculture.
Resources Minister Keith Pitt also warned the Prime Minister there was no agreement within cabinet on moving to a net zero by 2050 target but has traditionally been regarded as a supporter of Michael McCormack’s.
“We have not committed to net zero by 2050 — that would involve agreement from the Nationals and that agreement has not been reached or sought,” Mr Pitt told the ABC radio.
“What we’re not going to do is sign up to anything that’s going to cost regional jobs,” he said.