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The surplus, the tax and the leaders.

Tony Abbott switches his question time attack to the surplus, but doesn't leave the carbon tax behind.

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Tony Abbott has moved to calm nerves in the Coalition by telling the party it cannot expect to ride high in the polls for the entirety of the Parliament.

Mr Abbott also sought to quell a brawl between South Australian and East Coast MPs over water, by appointing his two respective shadow ministers, Barnaby Joyce, from Queensland, and Simon Birmingham from Adelaide, to nut out a compromise position on the Murray-Darling Basin.

The government is expected to introduce a bill tomorrow allocating extra water to be sent down the river and the Coalition is split.

Tony Abbott

Urged to change tack ... Tony Abbott. Photo: Andrew Meares

With MPs worried about the narrowing polls and Mr Abbott’s strategy,  sources said the Opposition Leader told the party room this morning the Coalition was going through ‘‘slightly more difficult times’’ but it would be unrealistic to expect it to ride high in the polls for an entire three years.

He stressed that, as a team, the Coalition needed to finish the year strong to ensure a strong start into next year, an election year.

His address to the joint party room comes after it emerged Liberal MPs are privately urging Mr Abbott to change tack after another opinion poll put Labor within striking distance of the Coalition.

As Kevin Rudd continued to agitate yesterday by accusing Julia Gillard of dishonesty, Liberal MPs were more concerned with the latest Newspoll, which, for the second time in six weeks, showed Labor and the Coalition tied at 50 per cent on the two-party-preferred vote.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, several Liberal MPs told Fairfax Labor's recovery was now clearly a trend and Mr Abbott needed to broaden his approach beyond attacking the carbon tax.

There was no hint of any leadership talk but one MP said ''we will be watching the next few polls very closely''.

The government, beset by its own internal strife, seized on the poll result to claim Mr Abbott ''has run out of puff''.

But Mr Abbott defended his strategy yesterday.

''The next election is going to be a referendum on the carbon tax and the next election is going to be a referendum on prime ministers who say one thing before an election and do the opposite afterwards.''

There was disappointment in the Coalition when it began its question time attack on the carbon tax yesterday, leaving until the very end questions to Ms Gillard about her promise to deliver a budget surplus this financial year. After the release of the midyear budget update last week, the government began preparing the ground to abandon that promise.

Ms Gillard would no longer guarantee a surplus when asked, saying instead there was a ''plan'' and a ''determination'' to return to surplus.

The poll, in which Labor's primary vote climbed to 36 per cent, has also ended any hope among Mr Rudd's supporters of a leadership change before Christmas.

Yesterday, Mr Rudd hit out at Ms Gillard and her supporters, saying Labor would never move on from the leadership coup until everybody was ''honest about what happened'' at the time he was ousted. Mr Rudd also pointed out he noted ''a couple of months ago that Mr Abbott was entirely beatable''.

''A couple of months later, it seems that more people now agree with me on that prospect,'' he said.

He said Mr Abbott was languishing because he was not engaging on policy but ''simply absorbed in the politics of personal abuse''.

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