Julia Gillard needs a political miracle to recover. She is disliked by voters, they don’t trust her, and her prime ministerial persona is shaped around political incompetence and breaching commitments. And she faces an opponent who, while lacking any policy credibility and popular support, is a master political tactician.

Miracles do occur. But all Gillard and her advisers can do is try to create the conditions for a miracle. This is what she needs to do …

Use the required reshuffle to properly target her frontbench

The departure of Kevin Rudd opens up the foreign ministry but the real priority is sharpening the government’s economic message. If Wayne Swan, excellent Treasurer and poor prosecutor of the government’s credentials, is to remain, then Penny Wong should be moved from Finance and a hard hitter installed there, someone who can take the attack to the opposition hard, and do it in the House of Representatives. Chris Bowen was touted as the man for the job before he was dispatched to the purgatory of Immigration. What better demonstration of unifying magnanimity than to move Bowen to Finance.

Robert McClelland can now be safely let go and his absurd hodge-podge of a portfolio banished into the realm of Labor’s funnier ideas (John Kerin as Treasurer, Mark Latham as anything). Stephen Smith presumably returns to Foreign Affairs, once again subjecting Defence to the sort of ministerial turnover that enables holdouts, reactionaries and spendthrifts in that portfolio to prosper. It might be worth moving Simon Crean to Foreign Affairs instead, given his trade expertise.

Overhaul the PMO

The reshuffle should also involve shifting Don Russell from Greg Combet’s mega-portfolio to the PMO, which would be bad news for Ben Hubbard, but Hubbard’s arrival has failed to turn the Gillard office around. Russell has plenty of experience as chief of staff, amongst other roles. But it might involve a substantial pay cut given Russell’s current secretarial salary.

Realise less is more

Gillard should also aim to talk less and communicate more. For all her evident understanding of the trap of trying to manage the media cycle, she is still incessantly churning out announceables, holding door stops and photo opportunities and trying to talk people around. She might be better off adopting the rule that she only speaks when she has something significant to say. The rebuttal is that that merely allows space for Tony Abbott to set the agenda, but the government has been hopelessly ineffective at dealing with him anyway, and its efforts to do so merely look like they’re obsessed with him.

In any event, given how unpopular he is, the government should encourage Abbott to be as vocal as he wants, since it is likely to merely reinforce existing perceptions of him.

Don’t breach any more commitments

And the policy priority must now be the budget surplus. For a Prime Minister with a reputation for breaching commitments, delivering a surplus is crucial to what’s left of her reputation with voters. No matter the economic circumstances, everything else is, politically, subordinate to the commitment Gillard inherited from Rudd and then made her own, to produce a surplus in 2012-13.

Fortunately the economy looks like not throwing any impediments in the way of that goal.

All of this of course assumes that Gillard finds a way to lose her remarkable capacity to bungle something the moment anything starts going right. If nothing else, the leadership contest has, for the moment, wiped the slate clean. But one significant stuff-up, and the Prime Minister will be right back where she was: untrusted and disliked by the electorate, a heavy weight on her party’s primary vote, incapable of making Labor competitive.