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Barnaby Joyce's Secret Plan To Turn Craig Kelly Into A National

Craig Kelly could have defected from the Liberals to the Nationals, under a secret plan cooked up by Barnaby Joyce to save the controversial MP from losing his seat.

Joyce owned up to the bombshell revelation in an interview with 10 News First political editor Peter van Onselen.

"I really thought if he wasn't wanted by the Liberal Party, then we were only too happy to have him," the former Nationals leader and deputy Prime Minister told 10 News First.

"Craig, number one, wanted to be re-endorsed by the Liberal Party, without a shadow of a doubt. But in my discussions it was basically along the lines of, 'if they don't want you, I’m only too happy to see what I can do from my small part to make you part of our team. I think you’d be a great addition'."

Kelly, the Member for Hughes, has been under siege after a pre-selection challenge from Kent Johns threatened his chances of remaining as the Liberal candidate for the Sydney seat at the next election.

"Other people in the National Party, without saying it directly, were saying 'it’d be a shame to lose Craig to the parliament, it’d be great if we could do something if he failed to get pre-selection for the Liberals'," Joyce said.

Image: AAP.

Kelly had toyed with the idea of ditching the party and sitting on the crossbench, but ultimately decided against it, after crisis negotiations saw the NSW Liberal Party agree to re-endorse sitting MPs instead of subjecting them to a pre-selection vote process.

But a plan to poach Kelly to the Nationals, the junior Coalition partner, could have saved him from losing his seat even if he had lost a Liberal pre-selection challenge. The Liberals would be unlikely to field a candidate against a sitting National MP, which Kelly would have become by switching parties -- it is understood the Coalition agreement precludes a Liberal from standing against a National.

Image: AAP

Kelly played coy, but did not deny the plan or the strategy behind it, when it was put to him in an interview.

"A lot of people have come up with different ideas and suggestions but I had spelled it out very crystal clear, when there was some ambiguity," he told 10 News First.

"People came up and asked a lot of different things, and looked at a lot of different options."

Kelly claimed Prime Minister Scott Morrison was not aware of the plan.

Just two weeks ago, at the height of the crisis around Kelly's fidelity to the Liberals, fellow backbencher Tony Abbott posed for a photo with the MP and praised him as a "real Liberal".

Kelly said he had not been keen on the Nationals plan, saying he wanted to stay with the Liberal Party.

"I was elected as a Liberal and when I put my name on the ballot paper as a Liberal, I’d entered into a contract with the constituents that I had to serve the term out under that party, that’s what I agreed to and I made very clear i was going to do," he said.

But Kelly did add that there may be benefit in the Nationals looking to gain political footholds in more urban areas.

"The Nats play a big contribution in the Coalition and they continue to do so. They've also got issue with demographics, we’re seeing more and more concentration in the cities," he said.

"And ultimately if we’re going to win and stay in government, we win elections in the Liberal Party when the Howard's battlers or the Tony's tradies vote for us in the outer suburbs. That's what we need to concentrate on."