These are difficult days for the Government. The three incumbents of the great offices of state – the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the Treasury – find themselves under pressure. Questions are being asked about their aptitude for the challenges each will face in their respective posts. And their performances – which have so far been unconvincing, at best – could have a major impact on the success of Gordon Brown's administration.
Before entering the Treasury, Alistair Darling, had proved himself a safe pair of hands in a succession of difficult posts. But then Northern Rock happened. Mr Darling found himself the first Chancellor of the Exchequer in 140 years to preside over a run on a British bank. He failed to sound convincing during the crisis, and it has since emerged that he was leaden-footed in attempts behind the scenes to avert it. He has learnt the hard way that managing the economy is very different from running the transport system.
The stock of the new Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, has also fallen significantly in a short space of time. Mr Miliband was highly impressive as Environment Secretary. But he has looks sadly out of his depth in his new berth at the Foreign Office. He delivered a lacklustre speech at the Labour Party conference in September. Shortly afterwards, by appearing to back South Africa for a seat on the United Nations Security Council while negotiations on the subject are still at a delicate stage, Mr Miliband needlessly made himself enemies in several foreign capitals. And yesterday he argued that it was right for Britain to join in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, despite the horror that has unfolded in the country since troops went in.
The latest minister to feel the heat is Jacqui Smith. This is somewhat ironic because Ms Smith, Britain's first female Home Secretary, made the most impressive start in her new job of all her Cabinet colleagues. Her statement to the House of Commons in response to the attempted terror attack in central London in June was calm and proportionate. It signalled a welcome shift away from the hysteria of the Blair years on terrorism. But Ms Smith now stands accused of the familiar charge of "spin" regarding a cock-up over the vetting of security staff hired to work for the Home Office. In itself, the scandal is hardly of shattering magnitude. Despite the impression given in some quarters, there is no suggestion that dangerous criminals were hired for sensitive security jobs. The graver charge is that Ms Smith delayed an embarrassing announcement by several months for news-management purposes.
These simultaneous attacks on his frontbench team certainly create a headache for Gordon Brown. It seems to highlight a lack of depth of talent in the Government, which does not help a Prime Minister struggling to define his vision. But it is important he does not panic. Mr Brown should make it clear to his ministers that he expects an improved performance and then let them get on with delivering it. In broader terms, he must stick to the course embarked upon after the debacle of the early election. He needs to focus on the business of government and eschew headline-grabbing stunts. He also needs to reject clumsy attempts at news management of the type that has landed Ms Smith in hot water.
Mr Brown's political honeymoon ended with his mishandling of the speculation over an early general election. Yet the Prime Minister needs to remember that honeymoons are the exception in political life. Normal business has merely resumed. That said, Mr Brown needs far better support from his most senior colleagues if he is to win the battle for ideas in this newly sceptical political climate.