Expectations can be a terrible thing, particularly when they look like being thwarted. In the space of less than three weeks, the Coalition has gone from dead certs to narrow favourites, and the pressure of expectations is starting to tell.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott should understand this. He worked for then-Liberal leader John Hewson when expectations of a Coalition victory in 1993 went sour, Labor slowly erased a double-digit Coalition lead and changes to the opposition’s Fightback plan were demanded by a panicked party to hold off a rampant Paul Keating.

Hewson at least had the excuse that Keating was regarded as unpopular and unelectable, and seen as the architect of a crippling recession. But the return of Kevin Rudd has been on the cards for so long that it is astonishing that the Coalition seems so badly prepared for it. There are no surprises here: Rudd came back, and has made Labor competitive again, just as many predicted.

The boost enjoyed by Labor may yet prove ephemeral, of course, but Abbott for the moment doesn’t appear to be coping at all. He looks brittle, is easily rattled and, most remarkably, has yet to find a persistent line on Rudd (someone in the Liberal brains trust thought “Kevin Kardashian” was a good way to suggest Rudd had no substance, without even the wit to realise it only worked as “Kev Kardashian”). And yesterday’s “invisible” comments by Abbott again gave vent to the streak of denialism and hostility to economics that runs through Abbott’s political character.

The obvious response to Rudd’s shift to an ETS was made by treasury spokesman Joe Hockey: after years of denying a substantial impact on consumers, Labor was now saying it would shift to an ETS early in order to help consumers. Hockey even helpfully made this point on Twitter. Instead of running with that, Abbott tripped over some invisible, weightless, undeliverable gas. Abbott has previously tried this tactic of portraying himself as a regular working-class bloke who doesn’t understand all this intellectual nonsense about markets — “think of how much hotter it might have been the other day but for the carbon tax” he declared back in January — and it can be effective, but it can jar badly if it doesn’t come off, and yesterday was a real clanger.

That left Rudd with clear, indeed invisible, air to formally accept the unconditional surrender of the carbon tax this morning; the event concluded with “we’ve got to zip” but may as well have ended with a MacArthuresque “these proceedings are closed”. Again, Rudd is deftly exploiting the mythology created by the Coalition and its media supporters. The other day he was declaring that he wasn’t interested in class warfare, knowing full well the claim of class warfare against his predecessors was invented by News Limited and the Coalition. Now he’s terminated the tax that never was.

Indeed, the Coalition is now the big-taxing party when it comes to carbon dioxide: under the figures in the original Direct Action package, the Coalition will pay between $8 and $40 a tonne for CO2, far above the A$6 the European price is currently at.

Of course, the extent to which a dramatically lower carbon price will continue to drive lower emissions intensity in Australia remains to be seen: the carbon price so far has been unexpectedly successful in terms of both its minimal impact on inflation and its contribution to the broader factors driving down emissions, but these are neither here nor there for Rudd, a cynical, opportunistic Prime Minister doing everything he can to snatch an unlikely election victory.

Rudd can do this because he’s unencumbered by any baggage, or any deal with the Greens, which was the only reason Julia Gillard embraced a carbon price. Instead it is Abbott who looks burdened by both his policies and his political style. The longer this goes on, the more it looks like a reversal of the first Rudd-Abbott match in 2010, when an opportunistic Abbott proved too nimble for his opponent.

And that’s not what Abbott’s colleagues expected at all.