In a shock move, South Australian Premier Mike Rann has ended 48 hours of speculation on a leadership coup by announcing he will step down as the state Labor Party leader.
Mr Rann has agreed to step aside in favour of Education Minister Jay Weatherill, a former lawyer, who has held the Adelaide seat of Cheltenham since 2002.
The premier, who is in India on a seven-day trade mission, says he has told his colleagues he will hand over the leadership, but only after a smooth mentoring transition period.
“I have always believed it is for the parliamentary party to choose the leader,” Mr Rann said in a statement on Sunday.
“A decision has now been made that Jay Weatherill is the person who will succeed me … I have decided that a seamless transition to a new leader was the most appropriate course in the interests of South Australia.”
Mr Rann said there were several key projects he wished to complete, including the go-ahead for the Olympic Dam mine expansion, before he stepped down as premier.
Despite winning the state election last year, there had been speculation that Mr Rann would be facing a leadership challenge sooner than later.
Speculation the besieged leader would face a leadership coup was rife after reports Mr Rann, Labor leader for 17 years and premier since 2002, was told by the party’s right faction on Friday to stand down or be removed.
Separate meetings of the left and right factions had endorsed Mr Weatherill as the party’s next leader.
But Mr Rann reportedly told factional powerbrokers on Friday that he would not go quietly.
He denied he was under pressure when approached by one media organisation on Friday night.
“I have absolutely no intention of retiring,” Mr Rann said then.
“I’ve not been contacted by anybody who says that I will be retiring before the state convention.
On Sunday, Mr Weatherill told journalists a smooth transition was preferable.
“I am hopeful we will be able to offer some certainty very soon. I don’t think it will come to a challenge,” he said.
Mr Weatherill challenged for, and lost, the deputy job after Labor suffered a backlash in the state election. A swing of about seven per cent against Labor prompted the challenge by Mr Weatherill, who has been considered a potential leader since entering parliament eight years ago.
It was earlier reported Mr Rann reacted angrily on Friday when told of the cross-factional deal to replace him.
State treasurer Jack Snelling said he told Mr Rann on Friday of the right faction’s decision to back Mr Weatherill, but no ultimatum had been given.
“I said to the premier just what I’ve said now, that is, that the right faction has come to the conclusion that should a vacancy in the SA Labor Party occur then we will be supporting Jay Weatherill to take over as leader of the party,” he told journalists on Sunday.
Mr Snelling denied the premier was being forced out.
“The timing of a transition of the leadership now rests with the premier.”
He said Attorney-General John Rau would remain deputy during the transition period.
Labor has experienced a succession of bad opinion polls, but Mr Rann has previously insisted that he will lead the party to the next state election in 2014.
Flinders University Associate Professor Haydon Manning said negative polling and a need for generational change had inspired the change.
“It’s about getting a new leader and a new set of ministers and to turn the tide and put the government in a position to win the next election,” he told AAP on Sunday.
Mr Rann said he would make further announcements on his future on his return about August 7 or 8.