Mr Kelly told The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age he did not discuss retirement from Parliament during his meeting with the Prime Minister, “or at any other time”.
“To the contrary, part of the discussion was what was required for me to contest and hold the seat at the next election,” he said, while also backing a rank-and-file vote for preselection in Hughes.
“It is an important part of our democracy that sitting members have to reapply for their jobs at every election. I welcome a preselection process [where] everyone gets a vote and anyone is able to throw their hat in the ring.”
Eight Liberals with knowledge of the machinations underway in Hughes said that potential preselection challengers could include Kent Johns, Dallas McInerney, Ned Mannoun and Bree Till.
Mr Johns has twice previously been prepared to stand against Mr Kelly before being asked not to run. Mr McInerney is chief executive of Catholic Schools NSW. Mr Mannoun is a former Liverpool mayor and real estate agent.
Ms Till is considered a dark horse candidate. The mother of four is the widow of Sergeant Brett Till, an Australian soldier killed in Afghanistan in March 2009. She is not a party member and is said to be undecided about whether to put her name forward.
Mr Morrison was involved in helping Ms Till secure appropriate compensation from the ADF after her then-husband’s death. She has since remarried and works with veterans and their families.
A source familiar with the Prime Minister’s thinking said that if Mr Kelly were to step down, Ms Till would be among his top choices for the seat, though there were hurdles to clear.
“If Craig goes the PM wants a woman in Hughes. He’s actively encouraging women to stand in other seats,” the source, who requested anonymity so as to reveal confidential discussions, said.
“He has known Bree Till for a decade-plus and has always supported her involvement in community life. If he could get her in, he would.”
Meanwhile, Mr Turnbull – who helped save Mr Kelly from losing preselection in 2016 – said that “of course there should be an open preselection in Hughes. I supported one in 2019”.
“Back in 2016 there was a collective view to not encourage Kent Johns to challenge Craig Kelly, but that was a very low key intervention,” he said.
Mr Morrison intervened in 2019 to protect Mr Kelly from a challenge.
“Kelly is much more disruptive, dangerous and destructive for the Coalition today than he was five years ago,” Mr Turnbull said. “It was one thing to peddle crazy ideas on climate change, that’s bad enough, but to be misleading people on public health during a pandemic is the height of irresponsibility”.
”We are now in a position where the Coalition is in a very strong position going into the next election. If Kelly can’t win the support of the local party what possible justification is there protect him?“
Local Liberals in Hughes believe Mr Kelly – who increased his margin by 0.5 per cent to 9.9 per cent at the last election – would struggle to win majority support in an open preselection for the seat.
Lee Evans, the Liberal MP for the state seat of Heathcote, which overlaps the federal seat of Hughes, indicated he wanted Mr Kelly to be replaced by a new Liberal candidate at the next election.
“I look forward to an open and fair pre-selection in Hughes. Hopefully it is sooner rather than later,” he said.
Mr Evans said that he planned to call the Prime Minister’s office and seek confirmation that Mr Kelly would not be protected from a potential challenge.
Mr Kelly and his wife Vicki recently put their family home on the market.
James Massola is political correspondent for the Sun-Herald and
Sunday Age. He was previously south-east Asia correspondent in Jakarta and chief political correspondent. Before that he was political correspondent for the Australian Financial Review.