Aside from the loss of a Liberal Democrat leader, the most obvious casualty of Gordon Brown's mishandling of last month's general election speculation has been the Government's political momentum. Labour's hefty opinion poll lead at the time of party's conference in September has drained away, along with much of its confidence. The Independent's poll of polls today shows that the Conservatives are enjoying a four point lead.
So what does Mr Brown need to do to regain the initiative? First he should put an end to the unseemly scrabble for short-term political advantage in which he and his advisers have been engaged. Since becoming Prime Minister in June, Mr Brown has been dabbling in the sort of headline-grabbing stunts pioneered by his predecessor. Though such techniques might work for a while, the public soon grows weary of them. And when they are used as a substitute for considered policy, that weariness quickly turns to anger. Second, the Prime Minister needs to stop pretending to be something he is not. Mr Brown's attempt at political "cross-dressing", adopting measures and poses more commonly associated with his opponents, has been unconvincing. Like so much of what passes for modern political discourse, it merely serves to insult the electorate's intelligence.
Unfortunately, the signs are that parts of today's Queen's Speech will compound, rather than reverse, these errors. One element of the speech is expected to be an extension of the time that terror suspects can be held by the police. The worrying indications are that Mr Brown feels it necessary to prove himself sufficiently "tough" on the terror threat through such a draconian move. The same motivation seems to lie behind Mr Brown's foolish decision to push ahead with a costly and illiberal ID card scheme. Mr Brown opposed the idea in Cabinet when it emerged under Tony Blair, but now he has adopted it as a way of showing that he is not distancing himself from his predecessor's legacy. Another depressing element of today's likely programme is the demand that migrant workers from outside the European Union be required to learn English. This pandering to xenophobia is distasteful. And as the measure was not part of the draft Queen's Speech unveiled in July, it looks like a panicked response to David Cameron's recent speech on immigration.
Rather than resorting to such cynical manoeuvring, Mr Brown should play to his strengths. He ought to promise calm and responsible government, however dull that may seem. There is much to be said for a period of quiet statesmanship. As for the much vaunted "vision thing", Mr Brown's problem is not that he lacks one, but that he is afraid to talk about it openly. He is, at heart, a progressive politician, deeply concerned with eradicating poverty, both at home and abroad, and in boosting opportunity for all. The Prime Minister ought to have the courage of his convictions and push ahead with this social democratic agenda. He should ignore the inevitable cries from angry Blairites that he is reverting to a vote-losing "old Labour" ideology. After all, Mr Brown was a key architect of the New Labour project – some would even argue that he was the brains behind it all – and his values are well in keeping with the views of most people in Britain.
Mr Brown has achieved his cherished dream of becoming prime minister. It is understandable that he is afraid of losing that prize. But he cannot spend his entire premiership in defensive mode, constantly worried about his right flank. How much worse would Mr Brown feel if he were to lose the most powerful office without at least attempting to implement some of what he believes in? The stunts and cheap positioning have outlived their usefulness. Will the real Gordon Brown please step forward?