Gordon Brown suffered a Commons mauling at the hands of David Cameron after the Tory leader ridiculed the Prime Minister for "bottling" out of a general election.
Mr Brown also faced allegations that the Government had stolen Tory policies on tax as he endured his most uncomfortable session of Question Time since becoming Prime Minister in June. Tory MPs said the two leaders had changed places since their last weekly battle in July, when Mr Brown was riding high and Mr Cameron struggling to impose his authority.
Later Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, reflected the anxiety in Labour's ranks by admitting that it had "not been the best of weeks" for Mr Brown. He told the BBC he did not blame the media for the election fever. "I'm not saying we are blameless... If he [Mr Brown] had thought it through and decided a weekend earlier, we wouldn't be having all of this," he added.
Labour MPs admitted privately that Mr Brown had taken two "short-term hits" by scrapping plans for an election on 1 November and announcing proposals similar to Tory policies on inheritance tax, foreign UK residents claiming non-domicile tax status and a "flight tax" to replace air passenger duty. They left the Commons hoping that Mr Brown's short-term discomfort will be long forgotten by the next election.
But there was little sign yesterday that Labour had regained the political initiative as ministers had hoped to by announcing troop reductions in Iraq on Monday and their tax and spending plans on Tuesday. Tory MPs said the momentum in politics was now with the Opposition. They hope yesterday's joust marked a turning point in the head-to-head battle between the leaders.
Mr Cameron said Mr Brown looked like "a phoney" for denying that poor opinion polls forced his decision not to call an election. "You are the first prime minister in history to flunk an election because you thought you could win it," he said.
The Tory leader asked him: "Have you found a single person who believes your excuses for cancelling the election?"
Mr Cameron urged Mr Brown to "find a bit of courage, get a bit of bottle, get into his car, go down to Buckingham Palace and call that election". He told him: "For 10 years you have plotted and schemed to have this job, and for what? No conviction, just calculation. No vision, just a vacuum."
Mr Brown said he would take "no lectures" from Mr Cameron given the way he had changed his mind on grammar schools, VAT on domestic flights, parking fees at supermarkets and museum charges.
He dodged a question from Mr Cameron on whether the draft pre-Budget report written before last week's Tory conference had included plans to reform tax on inheritance or non-domiciles. Mr Brown replied that the Government had raised the inheritance tax threshold 10 times since 1997. He also insisted the Tories' plans to hit non-domiciles would generate only £650m rather than the £3.5bn they claimed. "We will continue to govern in the interests of the whole country," he said repeatedly.
Geoff Mulgan, a former Brown aide, called on the Prime Minister to lead rather than follow public opinion now the election had been postponed. Writing in today's New Statesman, he said: "That will require fewer tactics and more strategy, fewer efforts to push every button and win over every interest, and more clarity about a few, simple things that really matter." He cast doubt on his attempt to build a "big tent" by handing jobs to Tories and Liberal Democrats. "After all, as any camper knows, tents that spread their base too wide risk collapsing at the first gust of wind," he said.