TWO weeks ago, after the debacle of Gordon Brown’s non-election announcement, I posed the question whether there was anything at all the Prime Minister could do to regain the political initiative.
In a nutshell, I said the answer was to stop nicking the Tories’ ideas and set out an agenda that was distinctively and authentically his own.
Mr Brown’s fortunes have not improved in the ensuing fortnight. This week, a damning report on the conduct of May’s Scottish Parliament elections forced a grovelling apology from the then Scottish Secretary Douglas Alexander, one of Mr Brown’s closest allies.
It gave David Cameron another golden opportunity to bash Mr Brown over the head at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, which he duly grabbed with both hands. So much for the Big Clunking Fist.
At the same time, the Government has continued to adopt a defensive posture over the big issue of the moment – the row over whether there should be a referendum on the new European Treaty.
In the immediate aftermath of the election decision, I was one of those who argued that it might make sense for Mr Brown to hold one, as a means of demonstrating that he is not afraid to face the voters.
Since then, however, the Government – most notably Foreign Secretary David Miliband – has dug in its heels so firmly against such a referendum as to rule out the option.
A U-turn on the issue at this stage would only reinforce the idea of Mr Brown as a “bottler” who is incapable of giving strong leadership.
So what can Mr Brown do to regain the upper hand? Well, ever since the outset of his premiership, it has been clear that he sees constitutional reform as a key part of his agenda.
It was the subject of his first big Commons statement after taking over in Number 10, and this week, Justice Secretary Jack Straw attempted to put some flesh on the bones in a follow-up statement to the House on Thursday.
Some of the ideas were rehashed from that earlier statement and from Mr Brown’s party conference speech, for instance, a fully-elected House of Lords and allowing MPs to vote on going to war.
What was new, however, was the emphasis placed on the “liberty” agenda, with Mr Brown setting out a range of measures to increase access to information and guarantee human rights.
From a purely professional point of view, it was gratifying to see that part and parcel of this included a new commitment to Press freedom and the scrapping of plans to curb the Freedom of Information Act.
As readers of an older vintage will recall, this Act was pioneered by the former South Shields MP David Clark, now Lord Clark of Windermere, during his short spell in Cabinet from 1997-98.
Lord Clark spent most of that time being undermined by his own side, not least by a Number 10 Press officer who told me he had “totally lost it,” but against the odds, he has managed to leave a lasting legacy.
This in spite of a campaign by Alastair Campbell to strangle the original Bill at birth, and the more recent attempts to water it down by making the costs of information requests prohibitive. But although this announcement will doubtless help mend fences with the media, Mr Brown will need to do more to win a fourth term for Labour than merely pleasing the Press.
If the “liberty agenda” is to mean anything, for a start, the Government surely has to look again at its hugely expensive and controversial compulsory ID card scheme.
As well as being potentially the biggest infringement of individual liberties in this country since rationing, it will also cost an estimated £15bn to implement, which most people think could be better spent elsewhere.
This is another area where Mr Cameron’s Tories have managed to put themselves on the right side of both popular sentiment and liberal opinion, two things which don’t necessarily always coincide.
Similarly, if the “liberty agenda” does not go nearly far enough, neither at this stage to do the Government’s proposed constitutional reforms. If public trust in politics is genuinely to be restored, there are three specific areas which the Prime Minister should take a closer look at.
First, he should introduce a Bill for four-year fixed term Parliaments, and pre-announce that the next General Election will, therefore, be held on the first weekend in May, 2009.
Mr Brown has already as good as accepted that he messed-up big time with the election announcement. Giving away his power to determine future polling days might be seen by the voters as a way of making amends.
Second, the Prime Minister should take a fresh look at proportional representation for Westminster. The first-past-the-post system, by encouraging the parties to target their messages at voters in a hundred or so marginal constituencies, has resulted in the effective disenfranchisement of most of the population.
Finally, Mr Brown should start to turn the “new localism” from a trendy political catchphrase into a meaningful reality, giving people and communities more power over how their taxes are both raised and spent.
If the Prime Minister is looking for a Big Idea, an overarching narrative by which he can define his proposed constitutional reforms, this surely is it.
Beyond the constitutional agenda, Mr Brown badly needs to rediscover his old social justice credentials, and recreate the kind of One Nation politics that Labour used to espouse.
I find it amazing that, after a decade of Labour Government, we are still reading about the pernicious health divide between North and South – but perhaps I shouldn’t really be that surprised.
The big question at the end of the conference season was whether the Tories could sustain the poll lead they had suddenly established as a result of their inheritance tax gambit and Mr Brown’s indecisiveness.
So far, the answer is yes. One poll yesterday showed the Conservatives are now on 41%, their highest level of support since before Black Wednesday. Mr Brown needs to stop that hardening into the kind of consistent poll lead which would create an unstoppable momentum around Mr Cameron as the next Prime Minister.
In short, he needs to rediscover that Big Clunking Fist – and fast.