Leading article: After another fine mess, Mr Brown needs to show signs of conviction

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After last week's calamitous defeat for the Labour Party in the town hall elections, it was imperative for Gordon Brown to steady the ship of Government and project an image of calm and authoritative leadership. Yet the Prime Minister has failed to provide any of this. Instead, he has stumbled from one imbroglio to another. Tragically, the only image that has been projected from Downing Street is one of haplessnessand desperation.

And if the Prime Minister is tempted to blame circumstance or bad luck for his predicament, he should think again. This week's confusion over a Scottish referendum on independence is only the latest in a long line of disasters for which Mr Brown is inescapably responsible. A long line that goes back at least to last year's Budget, before Mr Brown became Prime Minister, and in which he pre-announced this year's abolition of the 10p income tax rate.

Another bad decision was taken in his early days at No 10, although it was not announced until December. That was the decision to resume Mr Blair's failed attempt to extend the maximum period of detention without charge of terrorist suspects. As Charles Clarke, the former Home Secretary, argued this week, "This Parliament settled the matter in March 2006 at 28 days." The 42-day proposal is unnecessary, divisive and damaging. It looks as if Mr Brown is doing it simply to curry votes with the editors, writers and readers of authoritarian newspapers. In which case it is both unprincipled and unsuccessful. It was one thing for Mr Blair to fight and lose on this issue in the twilight of his premiership; it is quite another for Mr Brown to do so for a principle on which he appears to lack conviction in his first year in office.

The reclassification of cannabis, confirmed by Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, this week appears to be another example of the same phenomenon: a desperate attempt to appeal to the populist media. When he became Prime Minister, Mr Brown asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to look at whether the medical evidence justified returning cannabis to class B. The council has ruled that there is not. Yet the Government has gone ahead and reclassified the drug anyway. So much for Mr Brown's promises last week to "listen and learn".

And now we have the future of the United Kingdom being treated as the accidental by-product of some too-clever-by-half tactical manoeuvre, which was designed to embarrass Alex Salmond, the cocky leader of the Scottish National Party, but which has backfired horribly. Once again, Mr Brown seems to have made a strategic error some time ago. In agreeing to the review of devolution led by Sir Kenneth Calman that began last month, he was once again "triangulating", as Mr Clarke complained.

The Calman review suggests that devolution is not working, and that there is some soggy compromise between the status quo and independence. But a rational policy from the Government would surely be to argue that devolution is a success and to stand firm on the slippery slope that the SNP hopes will carry the Scottish people, currently opposed to independence, to its goal. David Cameron's charge, that Mr Brown put calculation above principle in this matter, sounds woundingly plausible.

This newspaper welcomed Mr Brown's succession on the basis that he was committed to social justice, a practical green agenda and a rules-based internationalism. If he is to have any hope at all of recovering the situation – and it is beginning to feel as if a point of no return has already been passed – he needs to start to take decisions and to defend them on the basis of the strong convictions that we believe him to hold.

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