Ten minutes before Barry O’Farrell’s shock resignation on Wednesday, Gladys Berejiklian’s supporters swung into action. A war room that included the former Liberal leader John Brogden was established and planning began for how she would be made the next premier of NSW.
As a sombre Mr O’Farrell stepped up to the podium to announce his decision to a stunned media, MPs were seen running between Parliament House on Macquarie Street and the ministerial offices in Governor Macquarie Tower to assess the state of play.
Mr O’Farrell announced he would call a party-room meeting for “next week”, when a ballot to choose his successor would be held.
For another contender for the top job, Treasurer Mike Baird, the announcement indicated he and his supporters would have a week to gather support.
It was not until 7.30pm that Mr O’Farrell’s media adviser Brad Burden texted the media announcing the ballot would in fact be held the next day at 3pm, massively compressing the period in which lobbying could take place.
The move, which many attribute to Mr O’Farrell, gave Ms Berejiklian – Mr O’Farrell’s preferred successor – and her supporters an enormous advantage.
“Barry’s most noble decision was followed by his most cynical,” one unimpressed Liberal figure said.
By early Thursday morning Ms Berejiklian’s supporters believed they narrowly had the numbers to make her premier; but Ms Berejiklian had other ideas. She told them she would not contest the ballot in the “interests of party unity”.
Instead she would run on a unity ticket with Mr Baird, seeking to become his deputy.
The deal was sealed at a meeting early on Thursday, but when it was announced all hell broke loose. The rival right faction, which had hoped its numbers would be needed by Mr Baird to elect him premier, had been left out in the cold. Its members were outraged – particularly the prospect of a Liberal leader and deputy from the left faction.
The right has three sub-factions: the centre right, the hard right and the “conservatives”.
In recent years, the centre right and conservatives have been in a loose alliance with the left for the purposes of preselections.
A right-wing source said the deal between Mr Baird and Ms Berejiklian was totally unacceptable to all of the right-wing sub-factions, whose members felt they were having the arrangement thrust upon them.
“This has reunited the right for the first time in years,” the source said, adding that this view had been put, firmly, to Mr Baird.
The right began planning its own challenge to Ms Berejiklian, initially placing their hope in Community Services Minister Pru Goward, who before the Baird-Berejiklian deal was announced said she would contest the leadership. But by 1pm, after a conversation with Mr Baird and Ms Berejiklian, Ms Goward announced she was withdrawing her nomination as her focus was “the unity of the NSW Liberal Party”.
For the right, the focus then swung to Energy Minister Anthony Roberts. But a quirk in the party’s election rules dictating that MPs in the lower house elect the deputy meant the numbers were not there.
Less than 30 minutes before the ballot, Mr Roberts withdrew as well, leaving Mr Baird and Ms Berejiklian to be elected unopposed.