Mr Brown finally makes the case for staying resolute on taxation

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The son of the manse was at his most forceful yesterday. Gordon Brown treated us to plenty of heavy-jawed preaching about the Labour Party "heeding the call of duty to the people of Britain", and, tellingly, the need for determination in the face of hard times.

The son of the manse was at his most forceful yesterday. Gordon Brown treated us to plenty of heavy-jawed preaching about the Labour Party "heeding the call of duty to the people of Britain", and, tellingly, the need for determination in the face of hard times.

When Mr Brown sternly reprimanded politicians who are prone to "sudden lurches" in policy, he was, of course, ostensibly attacking the Tories. But he was also implicitly chiding his less resolute cabinet colleagues for their wobbliness in the face of fuel-tax protesters, and patiently explaining to his fellow ministers as much as Labour Party activists about "what it is possible to do and what it is difficult to do".

It must have irked Mr Brown sorely to have his tail tweaked by Peter Mandelson, of all people, when he remarked, about the fuel protests: "We were a bit unsympathetic and a little high-handed, and I think we got that wrong."

Mr Mandelson had a point. The Government's initial statements on the fuel crisis were couched in excessively bureaucratic terms. We should not forget that it was Tony Blair, no less than Mr Brown, who sounded like an automaton as he droned on about the ritual of annual budget procedures, not something of huge concern to the citizen at the petrol pumps. A great opportunity to take on and win the substance of the case against the protesters was thereby lost.

Yesterday, Mr Brown showed that it is possible to make those arguments of principle, although he failed to make much of the powerful environmental reasons for high duties on fuel. Even so, Mr Brown deserved to get some of his loudest applause when he bravely said that the Government must not give in to "those who shout the loudest and push the hardest".

Conversely, the Chancellor was right to address the concerns of pensioners, a group who have their allies in the Labour movement, but who, short of blockading the post offices on pension day, lack the brute clout of the fuel protesters. He rightly avoided committing himself to restoring the link with earnings, but made a convincing case for helping poorer, as well as the very poorest, pensioners, with the new pensioners' credit and by raising the minimum income guarantee from £78 to £90.

Mr Brown may have been unduly ambitious when he claimed that "in this time and this generation" Labour could see full employment and abolish child and pensioner poverty, but those are indisputably noble aims. What is tragic about the Government is that it may not be able to continue working for those things because the personal ambitions of some of its members - including Mr Brown - now threaten to jeopardise its progressive project and lumber the country with a Conservative Party that is less fit for office than at any time in its history.

Every time members of the Government and their proxies play out their rivalries in public, and each time they make coded or unattributable criticisms of one another, they make the re-election of the Government that much less likely. Discipline was once the watchword of New Labour: a key lesson of the 1980s was that a divided party doesn't get elected. Now that the Tories have an eight-point lead, it is time for Mr Blair, Mr Brown and Mr Mandelson to heed the call of duty and replay some of their old lectures about discipline, before it's too late.

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