Prime minister Scott Morrison says he suspects former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian may not run for the blue-ribbon seat of Warringah at the forthcoming federal election.
Berejiklian, who stood down as a result of an Icac investigation which is yet to deliver its findings, is being lobbied by federal Liberals to run for Tony Abbott’s former seat, to win it back from independent MP Zali Steggall.
In recent days, a string of senior Liberals, including Abbott and former prime minister John Howard, have publicly backed Berejiklian to make the switch to federal politics despite the incomplete Icac investigation.
A Guardian Essential poll published on Tuesday found NSW voters were sympathetic to the former premier, with most agreeing with Morrison’s criticism of the anti-corruption probe.
Amid the mounting speculation about Berejiklian’s intentions, Morrison on Tuesday watered down expectations, saying she had “suffered terribly” as a result of the Icac probe and may choose not to run.
“If she wished to put herself forward, of course I would welcome her,” Morrison said.
“That’s a decision for Gladys ultimately and she may choose not to go ahead here, I suspect. That’s a matter for her, and I respect her choice.”
The prime minister said that he believed she had been an “outstanding” premier, treasurer and transport minister and would make a “a continued strong contribution” to public life if she decided to put herself forward.
“But if she doesn’t wish to, I equally respect that decision. I know it’s been a very difficult time for her in recent times. She has suffered terribly in terms of things that have been aired publicly and I think that was just awful, awful to watch, terrible.
“And so I can totally respect that if she didn’t want to go ahead, then that would be totally her choice about what she wants to do and the contribution she wants to make going forward.”
The former premier resigned in September after Icac revealed it was investigating whether she broke the law by failing to report a reasonable suspicion of corruption on the part of her ex-lover, the former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire.
Berejiklian, who has denied any wrongdoing and says she had no reason to suspect Maguire, said at the time she had “no option but to resign the office of premier”.
The push for Berejiklian to run in the seat comes amid frustration that the NSW branch of the party has yet to finalise preselections in a raft of target seats in the state.
The party is yet to finalise candidates for Dobell, Hughes, Gilmore, Bennelong, Macquarie, Parramatta, Greenway and Eden-Monaro.
Factional chiefs are attempting to negotiate a settlement for their preferred candidates, with expectations that a deal will be done to prevent sitting MPs from any challenge.