Michael Towke claims cabinet minister texted ‘I believe you’ following allegations against Scott Morrison

Michael Towke, the man who Scott Morrison beat to become the MP for the Sydney seat of Cook 15 years ago, claims a serving federal cabinet minister has encouraged him to speak out about his alleged bad experiences with the now prime minister.

Towke intitially won preselection for Cook in 2007 before it was overturned, paving the way for Morrison’s elevation to parliament.

Morrison has denied allegations he warned after the Cronulla riots that a Lebanese Australian could not win Cook. He has also denied raising a false rumour in 2007 that Towke was a Muslim. The allegations were “completely untrue”, Morrison said on Sunday.

The prime minister said he could not reject the allegations “more fundamentally [or] more soundly”.

In an extraordinary claim likely to further destabilise Morrison as he prepares to call an election within days, Towke said on Wednesday that a current cabinet minister had contacted him to express support since he had spoken out about the prime minister’s alleged past behaviour.

“I’ve got text messages from a cabinet minister telling me ‘I believe you’ and do what you need to do, just be careful,” Towke told Network Ten’s The Project on Wednesday night.

Towke would not reveal the identity of the minister but said it was someone “more aligned” with Morrison and that people would be surprised by their identity.

“This person is a minister of the crown, this person I’ve never had contact with before, this person sent me a text message, and it’s like, ‘Hey, Michael, this is XYZ – obviously in confidence along those lines – just want you to know I believe you, do what you feel you need to do, just be careful’,” Towke said. “That is pretty sound advice.”

When asked by host Waleed Aly what he needed to be careful about, Towke said that he had been separately told by respected Canberra journalists that “people associated” with Morrison were backgrounding against him attempting to link him to neo-Nazi groups.

“Similar to 2007, there is desperation here, and they will go to any lengths to try and deal with that,” Towke said.

“People associated with the prime minister were circulating or were trying to get a story going that I was associated with neo-Nazis. That some of my supporters are neo-Nazis and then by definition, I was a beneficiary, or a friend, or an associate or whatever word you want to use to throw that tar and feathers so it sticks – I’m a neo-Nazi. They’ve gone from one extreme to the other.”

Towke said it was possible that Morrison was not aware of this and it was just “the hacks in his office who are doing this”. He also said it was possible that Morrison was “wilfully ignorant”.

“Maybe they know he is going to love what they are doing, maybe not, maybe he would sack them, I doubt it.”

When asked if it was possible Morrison had changed his views in the past 15 years, Towke said the prime minister at the time of the Cook preselection was “desperate”.

“It suited him to play the race card, I guess when you get to parliament and become the prime minister you are not an operative any more,” he said. “You’ve got the seat you want, you may not have to sort of lower yourself down to those tactics.

“I’m not saying he’s a racist. I don’t know him well enough. But he has certainly used racism, Islamophobia, bigotry, with refugees, and families of dead refugees with migration policies, and is being dumped on by his own side.”

Towke said he no longer had any interest in becoming an MP and if offered a seat would turn it down.

Towke on Wednesday repeated his previous allegation that Morrison had been at the centre of attempts to have him disendorsed in 2007 and that he had been told by multiple people Morrison had raised concerns about his Lebanese heritage in light of the Cronulla riots.

He claimed he shifted his votes behind Morrison in the final ballot because there had been a “political gun to my head” to withdraw from the contest. “They figuratively put a political gun to my head and basically told me they were going to ruin me, I’d never be employable ever again if I didn’t withdraw from the preselection and throw my votes in behind Morrison,” he said. “That’s what I did.”

In an earlier interview on Ten News, Towke said that the immigration minister, Alex Hawke – whom he described as the “ultimate faceless man” – had been his “handler” and had counselled him on how to get branch members signed on in batches.

“When I did it for them multiple times, it was a branch recruiting, but when I did it and had the audacity to do it for myself, it became branch stacking because you can’t have a Lebo in a safe seat,” Towke said on Wednesday.

Allies of Morrison have come out in defence of their besieged leader, saying the personal attacks were unwarranted.

“The recent political pile on the prime minister could not be further from the reality of the leader I have worked closely with at the cabinet table, at party discussions or socially,” the environment minister, Sussan Ley, said.

“The prime minister has displayed determination under pressure, a willingness to listen and a focus on getting the right outcomes for Australians.”

Ley was one of the three incumbent Liberal MPs that was spared by Morrison’s actions from a preselection challenge from within the factionally divided NSW division of the party, along with Morrison’s close ally, Hawke, and moderate Sydney MP Trent Zimmerman.

As part of the turmoil, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells lost her winnable position on the NSW Senate ticket in a preselection ballot, leading her to deliver a parting spray in parliament about Morrison’s character.

Fierravanti-Wells labelled Morrison an “autocrat [and] a bully who has no moral compass”, saying he had destroyed the Liberal party and was not fit to be prime minister.

She also raised the issue of Towke’s preselection in 2007, refering to allegations that Morrison had made racist comments about the Lebanese Christian’s heritage, including suggestions he may be perceived as a Muslim.

But Fierravanti-Wells’s speech unleashed further internal attacks and another bout of instability within the party, with Catherine Cusack, a NSW Liberal excoriating the prime minister over flood relief.

The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, seized on the divisions, saying the Liberal party’s “entire focus is on themselves”.

“They are not dealing with the challenges of how our economy goes forward, they are not dealing with issues like the aged care crisis.”

Albanese said the prime minister’s claim that he had needed to intervene in the NSW division in order to protect women in his party was “demonstrably not true”.

“That is why so many people in the prime minister’s own inner circle – people who know him well – have all come to a common view that he cannot be trusted,” Albanese said.

Comment was sought from Morrison and Hawke.