How far Gordon Brown's fortunes have fallen since those halcyon summer days of successful crisis management, when everything his stern gaze alighted upon turned to public relations gold! Take his efforts to extend to 42 days the period for which police may hold terrorist suspects without charge.
As we report today, he faces a backbench insurrection of such proportions that defeat will be guaranteed if he insists on proceeding with this legislation. Of those who responded to a Home Office consultation, a mere 8 per cent supported an extension.
As we also report, however, Mr Brown's troubles would not automatically cease, even if he simply abandoned this piece of wholly unnecessary legislation, as he undoubtedly should. Backbenchers are said to be as unhappy as they have been with any prime minister before him. They are in generally seditious mood, suspicious and distrustful of their new leader. This does not mean, of course, that Mr Brown's position is seriously threatened at least not yet. Having rejected the idea of holding a snap election last autumn, in a decision that continues to cost him dear, he can afford to wait another two years before considering an election. He has a majority easily sufficient to govern, so long as he does so with circumspection, and does not rush into areas, such as the 42-day detention period, where he should know that dragons lurk.
One of Mr Brown's difficulties, however, revealed starkly in recent months, is his apparent lack of instinct as to where dragons like to lurk. As a number-crunching chancellor, he was used to leaving Tony Blair to whip up the backbench votes when needed. More often than not, they obliged, sensing that their fate was hooked to his. We now learn that Mr Brown intends to appoint a chief-executive type to streamline operations at Downing Street and detect trouble before it happens. With such a figure in place, scandals such as "donorgate" and losses of computerised information might have been dealt with long before they risked tarnishing the Prime Minister. Mr Brown, the thinking goes, needs someone always looking out for his political interests, such as Mr Blair had in Jonathan Powell.
Whether a streamlined Downing Street machine will be enough to soothe ruffled backbenchers, however, is another matter. Margaret Thatcher, as she cheerfully admitted, relied on the tea-room skills of Sir William Whitelaw to scotch potential discontent. But there came a time when even his charms became inadequate. Extra help may free Mr Brown to concentrate on being Prime Minister. Sometimes, though, even the best "fixer" may not be good enough.