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Leading article: The Prime Minister must show us who he really is

The Prime Minister did the rounds of the talk-shows yesterday in what was billed the start of his fight-back. It came across as more of a mea culpa. Gordon Brown accepted responsibility for Labour's abysmal showing in last week's local elections, he admitted making mistakes since becoming Prime Minister, and he came as near as he could, without co-pting the actual phrase, to saying that he felt the voters' pain. Mercifully, he had dropped the irritating morning-after line about his determination to "listen and lead".

The Sunday version of Mr Brown was in ruminative mood, as well he might have been, given the size of Labour's losses. But his briefing notes had clearly instructed him to accentuate the positive. "Of course, we can recover," he told the BBC's Andrew Marr, gravely. When he anticipated the obvious follow-up by adding "and I'll tell you how", this is arguably where a whole new set of problems began.

Oh, how eager he was to offer solutions, and how glibly inconsequential those remedies seemed. He promised "to sort out the immediate problem with the economy" – as if the merest flick of a former Chancellor's wand could spirit away the combined scourges of falling house prices, rising food and fuel costs, the mortgage famine, and the predicament of first-time buyers.

He also had a shot at the vision thing. We will show people, he said, "that we have the vision of the future that will carry this country optimistically in my view into its next phase". Even allowing for the fact that Mr Brown has never had his predecessor's gift for communicating with the voters, what on earth was the average Labour supporter to make of this? Or a genuine floating voter?

A silver tongue can give a politician a head start in today's media-driven politics, as Tony Blair and David Cameron would surely admit. An instinct for the voters' concerns is almost a prerequisite. But if these are not your strengths as a politician, there are other ways to be effective. As Chancellor, especially in his early years, Mr Brown demonstrated how expertise and a grasp of detail could convey their own message of competence. And, scripted though it may have been, his gruff non-Blair act in the eventful first weeks of his premiership allowed glimpses of what seemed to be the "real" Brown through.

That real Brown, solemn, serious, down-to-earth, family-first and unfussed about image, is what he has to return to. Without that, he will have the worst of both worlds: neither the trust-inspiring confidence to be himself, nor the presentational gifts to convince as someone else.

The 10p tax-rate debacle was the perfect example – which is why it struck so many chords. For a politician who had placed poverty reduction at the top of his agenda, it left awkward questions about Mr Brown's priorities. What was he? A Blairite for whom getting rich was glorious, or the original Brownite voters thought they knew? For the sake of 2p off the basic rate of tax, the political down-payment has been expensive.

It cannot be ruled out that the mood in the country, as shown by last week's elections, has effected one of those tidal turns that cannot be reversed. There is another possibility that, even if it can, Mr Brown lacks the capacity to do it. In either event, he has little to lose by going back to his own personal basics. He could do worse than sort out what he stands for, what he can realistically achieve in two years, and set about it with the dogged will that distinguished his approach in the past. Then, at least, he will have something worth bequeathing, even if is not the fourth consecutive Labour victory that would once have headed his wish-list.