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Brown will need a break before autumn battles; COMMENT.

MOST Prime Ministers are relieved to get away from Downing Street when the summer recess begins, and for Gordon Brown the holiday can't begin soon enough. Even the famously workaholic Mr Brown - remember the 2007 break that lasted a day-and-a-half? - will be glad for some rest after the political battering he has endured over the past few months.

Many of his political problems are, of course, of his own making. He may insist that the global downturn began in America, but he was the Chancellor who took too little notice of the excesses of the City of London and presided over economic growth largely fuelled by debt.

The situation in Afghanistan cannot be laid at his door, but the Government's efforts to explain our presence there, and in particular the necessity of the dangerous Operation Panther's Claw, have verged on the lamentable.

In similar vein the parliamentary expenses scandal wasn't caused by Mr Brown (although several senior Labour figures still have questions to answer), but his response has not always been sure-footed.

His vaunted Parliamentary Standards Bill had to be radically scaled down in order to clear the Commons and Lords - an ignominious fate that would not, perhaps, have befallen a stronger Prime Minister.

The opinion polls tell a grim story, and real elections have turned out even worse - the Conservatives managed to outpoll them in Wales in June, and the prospects for the Norwich North by-election (the votes are counted today) are no better.

Nevertheless, he is striving to strike an upbeat note. At yesterday's Cabinet meeting in Cardiff ministers were told the Government can still win the election, based on the notion that Labour has policies while the Conservatives don't.

They may have a point, of sorts. In such a political context, the Conservatives should be a country mile ahead; instead they are only a few furlongs clear of Labour.

Part of that is down to residual suspicion of the Tories in the wake of the expenses scandal, and part of it reflects uncertainty about David Cameron as Prime Minister.

Mr Cameron has many good qualities as a leader - he is a superior political communicator to Mr Brown, and has often revealed a surer feel for public opinion. But the Tory leader remains something of an unknown quantity.

The problem with Labour's strategy is it doesn't differ radically from what they've already been doing. The party has long insisted the electorate will eventually see through Mr Cameron, but Labour shows little sign of closing the gap in the polls.

The real significance of yesterday's meeting is that it served as a reminder of the full-scale battle that will begin in the autumn and last until election day. Mr Brown believes he can bounce back. While that seems unlikely, Mr Cameron needs to raise his game too to be assured of victory.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 24, 2009
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