As the polls have gone from bad to worse for the Government, Dennis Shanahan’s role as the Comical Ali of Australian political journalism has become increasingly untenable. Since the start of 2007, every faint uptick in the Prime Minister’s Newspoll approval rating, or statistically-insignificant change in the Coalition’s primary vote, has been portrayed by Shanahan as the beginning of a conservative resurgence that would carry them to victory.

Dennis copped plenty from Crikey, bloggers and Press Gallery colleagues like Alan Ramsey for his efforts, but gamely soldiered on through the first half of the year, ever hopeful that a turnaround was imminent. Eventually, however, the sheer logic of his reliance on Newspoll had to kick in: given Newspoll was supposedly “Australia’s most authoritative poll”, its stubborn refusal to suggest anything other than disaster for the Government required a new approach.

Shanahan’s colleagues at The Australian saw the writing on the wall, too. Coalition confidante and ABC director Janet Albrechtsen called on the PM to resign and compared him first to Tony Blair and then to Margaret Thatcher (when in fact he’s most like John Major, but two out of three ain’t bad). News Ltd eminence grease Paul Kelly began praising Kevin Rudd, albeit faintly. Even the poor man’s neo-con, Greg Sheridan, offered his approval of Rudd, doubtless impressed with the latter’s toadying to the butchers of Beijing at APEC.

So lately, Shanahan has adopted a different tack. He’s been urging the PM to hold off as long as possible on calling an election – you can just see the PM’s car warming up for the trip to Yarralumla each morning while his office checks that morning’s Oz on whether they should go. And today, he’s given us the full-blown version of a theme he’s been developing for a while – that the ALP is being “clever” in its politicking on controversial issues.

Shanahan knows how effective the ALP has been in repeatedly pointing out how “clever” a politician the Prime Minister is, and he’s now repaying them in kind, pointing out that the Opposition doesn’t oppose Government decisions like the Gunns pulp mill, but tries to get mileage by complaining about the process that led to them.

The Government has been shrilly complaining for months about the Opposition’s unwillingness to docilely sit there and let itself be wedged as it has been so often before. Shanahan is now extending that theme into the suggestion that that unwillingness is somehow devious and cunning.

It’s similar to the furious reaction from commentators like Paul Kelly when Mark Latham deftly sidestepped the Government’s attempt to portray the ALP as anti-American over approval of the AUSFTA in 2004. And it suggests conservatives are now at the “fire at will” stage in their last desperate defence of the Howard era.