Not long ago, the words “people skills” was used about Tony Abbott mockingly, especially among journalists and political commentators. Abbott claimed to possess people skills when he thought about running for the Liberal Party leadership after the Coalition’s defeat in 2007. Few took the description seriously and it was soon used by Abbott’s critics to highlight a lack of self-awareness.

Yet the latest Herald/Nielsen poll, published yesterday, suggests Abbott does have people skills. The statistics tell their own story. As at last weekend, Abbott had an approval rating of 50 per cent with 41 per cent disapproving. This is quite high for an opposition leader.

Moreover, the Coalition and Labor are equal in the primary vote, with Labor leading by 53 per cent to 47 per cent after preferences. This equates with Kevin Rudd’s winning margin over John Howard in 2007. It is customary for the gap between the parties to narrow close to an election.

Rudd Labor is favourite to win the coming election. But the Coalition, under Abbott’s leadership, is competitive. This was not the case under Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull.

The Coalition’s support has increased gradually since Abbott replaced Turnbull. The trend is evident in the poll. The Coalition’s primary vote was at 35 per cent during the final week of Turnbull’s leadership. It rose to 38 per cent just after Abbott became leader, and at the end of February, it was 41 per cent.

Unlike Howard and Costello, Abbott was never in the forefront of the debate on the need for economic reform in Australia. Even so, the poll indicates the Coalition leads Labor by 51 per cent to 41 per cent when electors are asked which party is best suited to handle the economy. The gap is much the same when interest rates are raised.

It is fashionable among some to blame the Rudd government’s difficulties on the Prime Minister’s communications ability, or lack thereof. This is somewhat unfair to both Rudd and Abbott. Not even such fine communicators as Margaret Thatcher or Bill Clinton could have explained the home insulation policy for the simple reason it was an easily rorted dud.

Few would doubt Barack Obama’s ability to get across a message. Yet he has had no more success convincing Americans of the need for a cap-and-trade approach to carbon emissions than Rudd has had in Australia.

Most reports of Niki Savva’s book, So Greek: The Confessions of a Conservative Leftie, have focused on the former journalist’s account of her time working for Costello and Howard during the period of the Coalition government and its leadership tension.

Laurie Oakes launched it last month. He spoke about the interaction between journalists and politicians in Canberra and had some useful insights into what should be the relationship between former political staffers and their one-time bosses.

But Oakes, like many of his colleagues, ignored one of the central messages of So Greek. When Savva arrived at the press gallery in the early 1970s, “the overwhelming majority of gallery journalists were Labor supporters” – as she was at the time. According to Savva, not much has changed since, except “the Greens have peeled some Labor sympathisers”. She writes: “In the gallery itself conservatives are few, and often reluctant to out themselves.”

There is little doubt Abbott’s social conservatism is unpopular among large sections of the press gallery. But this does not mean he is unpopular in the suburbs and the regional cities, among either women or men. The Prime Minister, also a social conservative, understands this.

Rudd has a high popularity rating. It’s possible he can rally Labor on such issues as health and industrial relations, where it has a large lead. But health reform can be as difficult to explain to the electorate as emissions trading – as Obama found out.

Then there is industrial relations. As the Minister for Resources, Martin Ferguson, warned last week, flexibility and productivity are the key to ensuring the continuing mining boom does not have deleterious effects on the rest of the economy due to wage pressures. The government has junked workplace agreements, at the core of labour market flexibility.

It’s unclear how the year will work out. But Rudd’s decision to cancel an important trip to the US indicates he acknowledges Abbott really does have some people skills.