SYDNEY (Reuters) - Embattled Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Wednesday lost the unconditional support of a key political ally, renewing speculation he could be pushed out by his own party.
Abbott has faced criticism over policies ranging from his handling of the economy to the award of an Australian knighthood to Queen Elizabeth's husband, Prince Philip.
Senator Arthur Sinodinos, a chief adviser to Abbott's mentor, former prime minister John Howard, told Sky News television the speculation was "not just media hype" and needed to be addressed.
"My support for him has been based on his performance, his courage, his capacity to make the right calls for the country in opposition and in government," Sinodinos said. "But that support ongoing is not unconditional."
Sinodinos is widely considered one of the savviest political operators in Abbott's team, capable of reining in renegade party members. A hiatus he took from politics was partially blamed for Howard being voted out in 2007.
Some parliamentarians in Abbott's Australian Liberal Party want to vote on his removal as early as Feb 10, at the next scheduled party meeting.
Abbott has dismissed talk of a challenge as having been drummed up by a few malcontents within his party and the media.
Sinodinos' comments follow a call by another member of parliament, Dennis Jensen, to put Abbott's leadership to a vote.
Allies have spoken out in support of Abbott and it is unlikely enough detractors now exist to oust him.
The minister of communications, Malcom Turnbull, has denied media reports he was canvassing other party members on their positions should he seek to replace Abbott.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who had told the cabinet she would not challenge Abbott, declined on Wednesday to rule out standing for prime minister if the job became vacant.
Removing Abbott would need support from more than 51 of the 102 members of the federal Liberal party, to force a party room vote.
To assuage critics, Abbott has agreed to abandon some of his most controversial and divisive plans, including additional general services taxes and a paid parental leave program.
He also retracted the prime minister's power to appoint knights and dames after a storm of controversy when he knighted Prince Philip.
"I accept that I probably overdid it on awards ... I have listened, I have learned, I have acted, and those particular captain's picks which people have found difficult have been reversed," Abbott told reporters.
A staunch monarchist with a strong allegiance to Britain, Abbott has rankled indigenous Australians by claiming Australia was "unsettled" before the British arrived.
Editing by Clarence Fernandez