TONY Abbott and his team are living in the straitjacket of ambition. Like those (mostly) disciplined Olympic athletes, their eyes are on victory. Everything has to be tailored to winning, which means staying ''on message'', stomping around the stunt route of meat and fish markets, and managing controversial issues and restless colleagues with a minimum of headlines about splits and divisions.
This week we have seen Abbott squaring away the internal problem of foreign investment policy and continuing to stare down the Liberal industrial relations radicals. And, if anyone cares to ask, he'll say he's very happy with his frontbench team, never mind that his good friend and former colleague Mal Brough, having won preselection at the weekend, is headed to Canberra with his eyes on securing a ministry ASAP.
The opposition's good polls and Labor's woes mask, much of the time, the opposition's policy and personality conflicts. The Nats, the Liberal ''dries'', periodic tensions within his own economic team, the odd party room outbreak, and keeping the Young Turks occupied all test Abbott, and would do so in government.
The mild-mannered Warren Truss heads the Nationals but their Senate leader and wannabe future leader, Barnaby Joyce, is their spear carrier. It was Joyce who led the charge on foreign investment, being openly critical of Chinese investment by state-owned enterprises; the Nationals generally ramped up the concern about overseas designs on agricultural land.
Free-market Liberals such as shadow treasurer Joe Hockey battled to rein in the Nats' influence. Abbott's confusing comments in Beijing last week, which were interpreted as being more anti-foreign investment than they were, perhaps reflected the squeeze he has been in. The discussion paper Abbott released yesterday gave ground to the Nationals by lowering the threshold for Foreign Investment Review Board examination of bids for agricultural land and agribusinesses (all those made by foreign state-owned enterprises are already scrutinised). But it retained the policy on foreign investment in other areas. Some in the Nats (whose members include both economic ''dries'' and ''wets'') would have liked to go further. But they they won't be pushing it. The Nats believe Abbott is the best Liberal leader they could have. Malcolm Turnbull wasn't on their wavelength, and if Hockey had won the top job, he wouldn't have been either.
In government, things would get really interesting between the Liberals and the Nationals if Joyce, expected to move to the House of Representatives at the election, became deputy prime minister. This would not happen in the short term. But assuming Truss later retired, Joyce would probably get the numbers.
Abbott and Joyce have more in common than a quick glance suggests. Both were educated at Sydney's top Catholic school, Riverview, and each has been deeply influenced by Catholic social values. They are centrist, pragmatic and populist. Joyce recognises in Abbott a congenial leader; Abbott can persuade Joyce when he needs to.
While the foreign investment policy is now more or less settled, the Coalition's industrial relations blueprint will continue to develop until it is released. Abbott is caught between the hardline stance of business and some Liberals, and his determination to give the government minimum room to flail him. After saying that businesses would have to make the case for change, Abbott is now confronted by them shouting that case from the rooftops. If an election were called tomorrow, the Coalition's policy would be different from the one it would have produced a year ago.
But Abbott insists he will be cautious. The policy will promote flexibility, aim to enhance productivity, and limit what the Coalition sees as growing union militancy. But retention of the ''better off overall test (BOOT)'' will be a core commitment.
One issue will be how specific the policy is. Abbott is very aware - having watched the experience of Julia Gillard - of the cost of breaking promises, so if he says he won't change some aspect of the IR law, he can be believed. Those wanting to push for a bigger overhaul would prefer a more general policy. ''The key thing is having enough room to do what is necessary in government to create prosperity,'' one Liberal says. But everyone can play that game: Abbott will be under political pressure not to leave too many gates open. He will also have to convince business, especially small business, that there is a distinction between ''prudence'' (which he promises) and ''wimpishness'' (which is how they might see it) - although some business disappointment might also reassure the public that his policy is indeed cautious.
It seems bizarre that an abundance of talent could be a problem for a leader. But this has already brought tensions - some backbenchers have been frustrated that Abbott has not been willing to shake up his frontbench - and after the election will present a dilemma. Abbott's attitude is that reshuffles cause trouble and make enemies; he is also loyal to colleagues. The up-and-comers now reluctantly accept that, barring something unexpected, Abbott won't change his team this side of the election. But he will have to do so, to a certain extent at least, if he wins.
For example, the idea that Arthur Sinodinos, John Howard's talented former chief-of-staff, would not be in the ministry - and indeed the cabinet - is ludicrous. But in what spot? Logically, finance, but Abbott has guaranteed that Andrew Robb will still hold that.
Backbenchers such as Kelly O'Dwyer and Jamie Briggs would be looking for a post-election step up. Now, however, there are also some high-profile candidates who will walk through the parliamentary door armed with frontbench credentials - notably Brough and former West Australian treasurer Christian Porter. You would have to be a brave leader to tell Brough, who sat in John Howard's cabinet, that he could not have an immediate and reasonable portfolio.
Some Liberal sources think that Abbott would basically stick with his existing team, with a few unavoidable changes, and then use later opportunities to make others. But a PM is in a very strong position at the start and should go for the best possible team initially. Government is hard; all available talent is needed on its front line. Abbott would say all this is getting ahead of ourselves. His focus is on the nearer term.
And, of course, there is the spectre of Kevin Rudd. If Labor changed leaders, and its vote jumped, Abbott would suddenly be having to manage a more nervous and critical bunch. That would be a real challenge.