Long ago, in a political galaxy far away, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott use to playfully diss each other weekly on breakfast television.
Gillard used to joke they were politics' Punch and Judy show. Abbott thought Gillard would make a good Labor leader, and supposed that pretty soon he would have to stop flirting with her.
Now it is all punch. Gillard is on the ropes and Abbott is at her throat with the ferocity and tenacity of a pit-bull, leaving the Prime Minister no chance to counter-punch.
In the 14 months since she became the nation's first female Prime Minister by ejecting Kevin Rudd, Gillard has sunk with Labor to levels of unpopularity not seen since the darkest days of Paul Keating, before he was flattened by Liberal John Howard in 1996.
Just before she left for the Pacific Islands Forum in Auckland, the latest Newspoll in the Australian predicted Labor would lose up to 40 seats if an election was called now, including those of nine ministers.
An earlier state-based poll predicted that Rudd - who now eclipses Gillard as preferred Labor leader - would be the only Government MP to survive in Queensland.
Gillard's approval rating has collapsed to just 23 per cent, the Government's primary vote is a disastrous 27 per cent, and for the sixth successive poll Abbott is the nation's preferred prime minister.
Faced with considerably better measures at the time, Labor decided it needed to dump Rudd, with Gillard declaring after her unopposed succession: "I came to the view that for the Australian nation I had a responsibility to step up, to take control and to make sure that this Government got back on track."
Since then it has all been downhill. Gillard remains in power only with the support of independent MPs and the Greens, an alliance that has been demonised by the Opposition and treated with suspicion by a large number of voters.
Their support will ensure the passage of her proposed carbon tax, but against popular opinion and adding to damaging perceptions of Gillard as backstabber (for turning on Rudd after promising her support) and liar (for breaking her election pledge not to introduce the tax).
Gillard has lost control of this debate, as with other key issues, allowing Abbott to trample her with populist slogans aiming at fundamental resistance to any new tax, especially one opponents are successfully portraying as to Australia's disadvantage and of no environmental benefit.
Gillard has also completely lost her way on asylum seekers, an issue of extreme public sensitivity that Abbott has used to prod xenophobic fears for Australia's identity and culture, ignoring that those arriving by boat are a fraction of the tens of thousands of overstayers arriving by air.
The idealism of Rudd that ended Howard's reviled Pacific solution has morphed first to a failed bid for a regional processing centre in East Timor, to a refugee swap deal with Malaysia and now to reopening Howard's camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
To realise her policy of offshore processing - essentially a rerun of the Pacific solution - Gillard needs the humiliating support of Abbott, who is agreeing to support new laws to allow Nauru and PNG - but not Malaysia, which remains the Government's preferred option.
This has outraged a powerful coalition of refugee, human rights and church groups and opened wounds within Labor - passionate but complex divisions jumping factions rather than a simple, if bloody, left-right chasm.
Add to this anger at her attack on the High Court, continuing allegations of impropriety - if not crime - against backbencher Craig Thomson that could bring down the Government, union fury over steel and other manufacturing job losses, anger from both sides on live animal exports, and Gillard has a full bag of woes.
Even her gender, once an asset to the job, is being turned against her. News Ltd columnist Susie O'Brien described the Prime Minister as a disappointment, noting: "We expected Gillard would, as a woman, present an accessible, non-combative style of leadership."
The Welsh-born migrant daughter of Baptist working-class parents is a tough and very capable politician. She was raised in Labor's brutally Darwinian left, became a lawyer with one of the nation's largest and most aggressive law firms, and was a thoroughly competent minister and parliamentary performer.
Her negotiating skills have been clearly demonstrated, first in bringing the independents she needed to form Government on side, and subsequently through such major and difficult policies as the mining and carbon taxes, health reforms, and no-fault disability insurance.
Gillard has failed to wrap her Government in these successes, let alone articulate a clear, popular vision for the nation's future. Part of this is because of simmering public anger at the knifing of Rudd, some because she lacks charisma, more because of scandals and bungles plaguing both leaders, but mostly because the message has been mismanaged and lost.
Abbott has maintained a successful campaign of negativity that has painted Labor as an incompetent administration and Gillard as a leader without direction or authority.
Unless Gillard can turn this around, internal rumblings against her leadership could morph into a challenge. And if she does survive a full term without a major shift in voter sentiment, Labor will fall to Abbott at the next election.
MP under threat again
New accusations have again threatened the political survival of Wellington-born Labor MP Craig Thomson.
New South Wales police this week dropped an investigation against him after deciding there was no evidence that he hired prostitutes with the credit card given him as national secretary of the Health Services Union.
The allegations over events before Thomson became an MP have been passed to police in Victoria, where the union is headquartered.
The police decision was a relief for Prime Minister Julia Gillard, whose minority government could have been brought down if Thomson had been forced from Parliament.
But yesterday Fairfax newspapers said Thomson and another union leader and Labor Party national executive member, Michael Williamson, had allegedly received secret commissions from a major supplier to their union.
Fairfax said the men, both with the health union at the time, had been given American Express cards by John Gilleland, whose graphic design company produces the union's newsletter.
The report said the health union's accounts showed the company was paid up to 10 times the usual amount for producing such a newsletter. Communigraphix receives about A$680,000 ($864,040) a year for 10 issues of the newsletter.
The report said offering or receiving a benefit as an inducement to act in a certain way in business dealings may constitute a criminal offence.