THE battle for the seat of New England is shaping as the most closely-watched contest of the next election, with rural independent Tony Windsor now more likely than not to mount a political comeback.
Mr Windsor told Fairfax Media on yesterday he was a "better than 50 per cent" chance of declaring himself a candidate for his former seat. He resigned as the MP before the 2013 election.
Crucially, he is being "encouraged" to run by wife Lyn, and political associates confirmed it is "increasingly likely" he will attempt to unseat the agriculture minister and likely next leader of the National Party, Barnaby Joyce.
Mr Windsor, who has spent the best part of the past two months in the desert in Western Australia, is heading to Canberra next week and will discuss the idea of a comeback with former associates, including his friend and former balance of power independent Rob Oakeshott.
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thinking about it.Tony Windsor
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thinking about it.
“I haven't made any decisions one way or the other but it's on the table. I'd say better than 50 per cent," he said.
Recent polling conducted in New England for the CFMEU found Mr Joyce would be under extreme pressure if Mr Windsor entered the race.
The former MP would have pulled close to 38 per cent of the primary vote if an election had been called in August and favourable preferences could make it a knife-edge contest.
Mr Joyce said he welcomed anyone putting their hand up for New England.
"That's the wonderful thing about the country we live in, it's a democracy," he said. Another potentially damaging issue for Mr Joyce in New England is the likely loss of a lucrative Defence contract with BAE Systems, the former British Aerospace.
It operates a flight training college in Tamworth.
An announcement of a new contract, beginning 2016, has been delayed for the past nine months.