Leading article: A sorry lack of authority and judgement at the top

This week was a warning: Mr Brown must listen more and blame less
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The Independent Online

A month that opened with the reflect ed glory of the G20 London summit has ended in one of the worst weeks that any British government has endured since that of John Major in its dotage. Things have reached a pretty pass when the threat of a swine flu pandemic seems to offer something like refuge from the political storm.

In many ways it is hard not to feel nostalgic for That Was the Week That Was and its successors in the light of such ideal material. In truth, though, Mr Brown's week was beyond satire. How to cap seven days in which he was snubbed in Pakistan over student visas, read lessons in economics by his Polish opposite number, forced to duck and dive – finally ducking – on MPs' second homes, and managed to lose a vote on residence rights for Gurkhas?

This was the first government defeat since Mr Brown took over. But it was actually more humiliating than this. Any prime minister who cedes a victory that allows two beaming opposition leaders to pose beside a couple of Gurkha heroes and a radiant Joanna Lumley, against the backdrop of the Houses of Parliament, has been hopelessly incompetent. You can argue that Nick Clegg's motion was opportunistic and that, in his third-party position, he could afford to occupy the high ground, and risk defeat.

But he had grasped what escaped the Prime Minister and all his ministers and advisers: that they were at odds with the overwhelming mood of the Commons and the public. It really does not matter who was to blame operationally for the defeat: the Home Secretary (who was once again taking the flak yesterday), the whips, or those who drafted the mean-spirited concession that was rejected. The failure was symptomatic of a more general malaise that has long marked the Brown government: a catastrophic disorientation of its political antennae.

Almost everything that has gone wrong can be put down to this. The leaked emails was just one example, compounded by Mr Brown's botched and delayed regrets. Equally misjudged was the Prime Minister's ludicrous YouTube pledge for a vote on abolishing MPs' second homes allowance. One can only wonder if there is anyone advising him in Downing Street.

Not only did this online intervention seem to come out of nowhere – except perhaps from a dim pre-Budget awareness of voters' fury – but it also took MPs unawares, pre-empted a review already in progress, and, last but most definitely not least, made the Prime Minister look bizarre. The appearance of amateurishness can have a place in today's more informal, internet age. But without that great political asset, the common touch, it has a habit of making matters worse.

When the day of the promised vote arrived, MPs approved a slew of restrictions on their expenses. But the one that had drawn most public ire, the one that Mr Brown had specifically undertaken to address, was shelved. Once again, Mr Brown had tried to look decisive and failed; he looked only rather isolated and foolish.

There has been an end-of-regime feel to the past week. It is not just the gaffes and the public recriminations and the "more in sorrow" advice gratuitously dispensed by Messrs Clarke and Blunkett from the sidelines – and, more significantly, taken seriously by the media – but the conspicuous absence of authority and judgement at the top. In their absence, Mr Brown could do worse than heed those lethal words from George Osborne: "Never mind the lack of vision, just get a grip."