Leading article: A relaunch dogged by confusion and conflict

The Prime Minister's fightback has been undermined already
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The Independent Online

The Prime Minister will unveil a package of economic recovery measures that is being heralded as his political fight-back this week. With his tormented Government languishing 20 points behind the Opposition in the polls, it marks Gordon Brown's last chance to regain the initiative and stave off the threat of a Tory landslide. In keeping with the spirit of his premiership, however, the relaunch has been dogged by confusion and conflict even before it has begun – bad news for an ailing government that desperately needs to recover a coherent image.

The Chancellor's interview at the weekend set the scene. In contradiction to the Prime Minister's reassuring words of comfort on the current crisis, Alistair Darling painted a desperately gloomy picture of world economic prospects, claiming they were the worst since the 1940s. Aside from the questionable nature of this assertion, it is hard not to view the remarks as a deliberate attempt by a senior minister, once one of Mr Brown's closest allies, to distance himself from the Prime Minister amid feuding over the vital housing recovery plan. This is especially true given the nature of Mr Darling's admission that people were after his job, and his dismissal of a cabinet reshuffle.

If Mr Darling's insubordination was the only spoke in his carriage wheel, Mr Brown might yet feel his relaunch had some mileage. But the air is thick with backstage plots and rumours. The Foreign Secretary has likewise been acting in a somewhat semi-detached manner. Only days ago, David Miliband was whirling round Eastern Europe, openly upstaging his boss with flamboyant calls for a new anti-Russian league. Yet, instead of reining him in, the Prime Minister first announced that he had been on the telephone to Russia's President – a move that signaled that he was taking back charge of foreign policy – only to undermine that message by penning an aggressively worded article on the Georgia crisis that echoed Mr Miliband's confrontational language. If this strategy was designed to contain Mr Miliband, it is a poor one. It left the impression that where the impetuous Mr Miliband determined to go, the hapless Prime Minister was sure to follow.

With the Government's two most senior ministers effectively cutting themselves loose from the Prime Minister, there are rumours that Mr Brown's top aide, Stephen Carter, is also preparing to move. Against this background comes Mr Brown's attempt to regain a grip on his government, his party and his nation, as it hovers on the brink of recession. The Prime Minister's package of measures is expected to centre on help for those hardest hit by the mortgage crisis and targeted relief of fuel poverty. But here, too, hopes of success are being undercut by the Government's incoherence as Treasury officials strongly question the wisdom of rushing emergency aid to home-owners facing repossession. And, meanwhile, the housing market remains paralysed by conflicting messages from ministers over stamp duty.

Even if Mr Brown's measures are no more than gesture politics, they might do good if they were able to restore a little confidence in the economy. But the infighting among the most senior members of government would appear to have sabotaged that chance. Matters may turn out otherwise, of course, and for the sake of the country's hard-pressed citizens, we must hope this is the case. But as the Prime Minister begins a fateful week in his political career, he needs to remember, as his predecessor John Major discovered, that nothing destroys public confidence so much as the perception that a government is unable to speak with one voice.