SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's embattled deputy prime minister called a news conference on Friday at which domestic media reported he was likely to resign after weeks of damaging revelations over an affair with a former staff member who is carrying his child.
Barnaby Joyce, the leader of the conservative National Party, the junior partner in the ruling centre-right coalition, had earlier dismissed calls for him to quit.
The renewed possibility of his resignation comes after a falling out with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who is in the United States for meetings with President Donald Trump and who declined to leave him in charge while he is out of the country.
Turnbull last week called Joyce's affair a "shocking error of judgment", to which Joyce responded by calling Turnbull "inept".
Joyce, a practising Catholic, campaigned on family values and is the father of four children but has left his marriage of 24 years and is expecting a child with his former media secretary.
While Joyce's resignation would come as an embarrassment to Turnbull's government, the damage could be limited if he simply resigned as National leader and moved to the backbench.
The party would then simply nominate a new leader, who would become deputy prime minister under the terms of the coalition agreement with Turnbull's Liberal party.
The damage could be worse for Turnbull's unpopular coalition, which governs by only a one-seat majority, if Joyce were to resign from parliament.
The government would then lose its majority in parliament, at least until a by-election could be held to replace Joyce. That process would take at least a month, leaving Turnbull exposed in parliament.
Two-thirds of Australian voters want Joyce to resign, The Australian newspaper's Newspoll showed earlier this week, and discontent has been growing within his rural-focused party, with at least one senior member calling for his resignation.
His decision to call a media conference for later on Friday, confirmed by his party, came after a new allegation of sexual harassment was made by an unidentified individual.
National Party federal director Ben Hindmarsh confirmed earlier on Friday the party had received the sexual harassment allegation but declined to give any details.
A spokesman said Joyce had been made aware of the claim indirectly and believed it was "spurious and defamatory". Joyce had asked for the allegation to be referred to police, the spokesman said.
Turnbull would not be drawn on the ructions within the coalition's junior partner.
"The leadership of the National Party is a matter for the National Party," Turnbull told reporters outside the White House.
Joyce has been on personal leave for the past week and the latest allegation was seen as extremely damaging.
"The allegations of sexual harassment are dangerous for Joyce," said Nick Economou, senior lecturer in Australian politics at Monash University in Melbourne.
"The Nationals have traditionally been very reluctant to axe a leader. Impropriety is one thing but these allegations are another thing altogether and may see some re-evaluate their position," he said.
(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Jane Wardell and Paul Tait)
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