Liberal powerbrokers in Canberra are applying pressure for a woman to be pre-selected in the seat of Wentworth, with a safe spot on the party's Senate ticket traded to the front runner in exchange for his departure from the race.
Despite Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday arguing a candidate should be picked on merit, not gender, it is understood senior government members are working hard behind the scenes in Wentworth to ensure a woman prevails.
The frontrunner to replace Malcolm Turnbull as the Liberal candidate in Wentworth, Andrew Bragg, has been offered a spot on the party's senate ticket in exchange for pulling out of the race.
Mr Bragg also commissioned polling in the seat, which suggested a woman would be better placed to run in the by-election.
The poor polling for a male candidate, combined with pressure from Canberra and the senate sweetener were enough to convince Mr Bragg to walk.
He has also said he feels the Liberals should have more women MPs and his decision to step aside was influenced by allegations of bullying in the party's federal ranks made by outgoing Melbourne MP Julia Banks and former foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop.
Liberal candidate Carrington Brigham circulated an email to Liberal members on Tuesday saying "don't mark me down for my gender".
"If you believe that a woman is the best candidate to campaign and win this seat, I urge you to vote for her. But don't vote for her because she's a woman: vote for her because she's the right person," Mr Brigham said.
According to the private polling, the Liberals' primary vote has fallen to 39 per cent, from 62 per cent when Mr Turnbull was the member.
Preselecting a woman candidate could lift the Liberal vote by four per cent, according to the polling, published in The Australian.
Mr Turnbull held the seat for 14 years and in the 2016 federal election was returned with a two-party preferred count of 67.8 per cent of the vote.
The research also showed Labor's Tim Murray was tracking with 25 per cent of the vote and Sydney City councillor Kerryn Phelps, who could run as an independent but is yet to declare her intentions, had 20 per cent.
Mr Morrison said he'd like to see more women in federal parliament but the decision was out of his hands.
"We have not done as well in that area as I would've liked us to do but the party members are the ones who have to take on that responsibility," he told Macquarie Radio on Tuesday.
"I'm a merit person and the party members will decide our candidate in Wentworth."
The Liberal preselection candidates for Wentworth include Woollahra councillor Mary-Lou Jarvis and Sydney East Business Chamber chair Katherine O'Regan.
Ms Jarvis, who is president of the NSW Liberal Women's Council, was previously considered one of the biggest threats to Mr Bragg's preselection chances.
But AAP understands senior Liberals in Canberra want Ms O'Regan to be the candidate.
It is also understood Dave Sharma, a former ambassador to Israel, remains in the mix for Liberal preselection.
Some 210 selectors from Wentworth branches will determine the Liberal preselection on Thursday evening.
Derryn Hinch announced his Justice Party will run real estate agent Ben Forsyth as a candidate in the by-election under the slogan 'Sick of them? Vote for us!'
The date for the by-election is still to be announced but it could be held next month.
Australian Associated Press