Malcolm Turnbull has claimed that he narrowly lost the Liberal leadership because his colleagues feared he would win the next election – rejecting the idea the Coalition was poised for defeat.
Speaking to the BBC in London overnight, he described the August coup as a “peculiarly Australian form of madness” in an interview using his removal as an example of the retreat of centrism and rise of populism.
Turnbull – who urged the Liberal party to govern from the “sensible centre” while he was leader – said he had been removed because he was on track to beat the Labor leader, Bill Shorten.
Although he did not name conservatives in the party responsible for his ouster, Turnbull said he was voted out “fairly narrowly” in a process that “said more about the internal politics of the Liberal party than of the electorate”.
“You could argue that their concern was not that I would lose the election but rather that I would win it,” he told the British broadcaster.
The comments echo an intervention by the former foreign minister Julie Bishop last week that she could have beaten Shorten if she had been chosen as leader.
Turnbull said the Coalition was just two points behind in the public polls, and ahead by four points in internal polling of marginal seats.
Just a month before he was removed as Liberal leader the government lost a string of five byelections, including the two marginal Labor-held seats of Braddon, Tasmania and Longman, which precipitated fears of electoral difficulties in Queensland.
Turnbull spilled the Liberal leadership on 21 August, surviving a challenge from the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, 48 votes to 35, before bowing out on 24 August when he was defeated in a spill motion 45 votes to 40. The Liberal party room then elected Scott Morrison as leader.
The former prime minister pointed out that the Liberal party was now polling poorly compared with his own performance before the August spill.
“It still could win the election, the Liberal government, but its position is much less favourable than it was in August.”
Turnbull’s former colleagues brushed off the remarks. The finance minister, Mathias Cormann – a decisive vote against Turnbull in the coup – described the leadership issue as “ancient history”.
The jobs and women’s minister, Kelly O’Dwyer, told Radio National she would not engage in “history wars [which] are going to be fought by historians”.
Turnbull insisted that he had “retired” from partisan politics, although he said he would “always be interested in politics” and remained “a Liberal, [there’s] no question about that”.
He reinserted himself into the Australian political debate by contradicting his predecessor, Tony Abbott, who is battling to hold his seat of Warringah at the election, by disputing his claim that coal-fired power remains the cheapest form of base-load power.
Asked about the rise of global populism, Turnbull blamed “slow wages growth” and changes in the media market that allow audiences to access news that reinforces rather than challenges their views.
“Because the cost of news production has come down you are able to narrowcast and as a consumer or citizen, you can select a news channels that confirms whatever prejudice you have, however wacky or extreme that may be.”
Asked to comment on Britain’s messy exit from the EU, Turnbull said Theresa May was “doing an outstanding job in very difficult circumstances”, blaming the fact the referendum was not preceded by a “thorough process of inquiry into the consequences of Brexit”.
He suggested a better approach, in hindsight, would have been to secure a mandate to negotiate the terms of Brexit, then put the “best deal” available to the public for a vote.