One of the Coalition’s most senior women, the federal environment minister Sussan Ley, is expected to face a challenge in her rural New South Wales seat of Farrer amid allegations of “toxic” branch-stacking by far-right conservatives in the seat.
The threat comes as the prime minister, Scott Morrison, urged Liberal colleagues not “to get distracted” by a tumultuous preselection season in NSW in which at least four sitting MPs are being challenged, including two female marginal seat holders.
As powerbrokers work behind the scenes to try to pressure challengers to withdraw their nominations against sitting MPs, senior government sources say Morrison is prepared to use federal intervention powers if needed to protect members.
Senior party figures are most concerned about the fate of Melissa McIntosh in the key marginal seat of Lindsay with concerns she has lost control of her branches to the conservative faction.
McIntosh is being challenged by conservative Penrith councillor Mark Davies, the husband of hardline anti-abortion state MP Tanya Davies.
Fiona Martin in Reid, Trent Zimmerman in North Sydney and Alex Hawke in Mitchell are also facing challenges, with the outcomes set to be decided by plebiscites of local members for the first time.
The rarely used intervention power allows the federal executive to step in if it believes circumstances “substantially prejudice the ability of the party to effectively contest or win a federal election”.
While nominations are yet to open in the seat of Farrer, which has been held by Ley since 2001, party figures say the far right is preparing to launch a challenge to the sitting member.
Christian Ellis, a hardline conservative who attempted to expel Malcolm Turnbull from the party after he released his autobiography, is being touted as the possible conservative candidate after he recently bought property in the rural seat.
Sources close to Ley said the environment minister would “stare down any challenge” with support from Morrison.
“This is the toxic factional culture of the city starting to infiltrate into country regional seats, and it is a shame that a group of people in the NSW division want to disrupt good government,” one Liberal source said.
In the Coalition party room on Tuesday, Morrison told MPs the government was “filling out the board” for candidates for the next federal election.
According to a government spokesperson, Morrison “urged his colleagues not to get distracted by internal party issues that always come into play when there are preselections and endorsements around”.
“Don’t get drawn into it, let’s not feed it, let’s ensure we are the adults in the room in those situations,” Morrison said.
On the weekend, the Liberal party preselected candidates for the seat of Boothby in South Australia, with the moderate-backed Rachel Swift gaining the nomination to take over from outgoing MP Nicolle Flint, and Lyons in Tasmania, where Susie Bower, who also ran at the state election, was given the nod.
Morrison told MPs to focus on accumulating a war chest ahead of the election, saying the party needed to “raise funds and raise friends” and MPs shouldn’t stay home just because they might be tired.
Despite speculation that the government could go to an election this year, Morrison told MPs he would go to the polls in 2022.