UK leader's make or break moment at party meeting

Gordon Brown returns from a heady week on the international stage to the rather more prosaic business of getting down and dirty with querulous members of his own party.

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LONDON // Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, has returned from a heady week on the international stage to the rather more prosaic business of getting down and dirty with querulous members of his own party. The Labour Party's annual conference - the last before the general election - got underway yesterday amid opinion polls, along with some of his own MPs, predicting disaster for Mr Brown and his government when the UK casts its votes, probably next spring. It provided a reality check for Mr Brown, who returned home on Saturday from a week in the United States playing the international statesman, first at the United Nations and then at the G20 summit. But global warming and even Iran's nuclear ambitions were not high on delegates' agendas as they gathered in the southern seaside town of Brighton. What they most wanted to know was how Mr Brown could pull the rabbit out of the electoral hat and win the upcoming hustings.

The opinion polls show what he was up against: two published yesterday put the opposition Conservatives at 40 per cent and Labour between 25 and 26 per cent with the Liberal Democrats breathing down their necks at 22-23 per cent. A clutch of senior ministers responded to the grim tidings by issuing rallying calls and warnings to party activists in Sunday newspaper interviews. Perhaps the most remarkable example among this glut of political navel-gazing was the interview given by Alistair Darling, the chancellor of the exchequer, who admitted that Labour appeared to have lost "the will to live". "We don't look as if we have got fire in our bellies," Mr Darling told the Observer. "It is rather like a football team. Sometimes you see them playing and their heads go down and they start making mistakes and they lose the will to live." Urging the party to come out fighting, Mr Darling conceded that responsibility for the mess was as much of Mr Brown's making as anyone else's. "From the prime minister, the chancellor, every government minister: it is all our responsibilities," he said. The chancellor's football analogy produced some wry smiles at the conference venue in Brighton - a town whose team once ranked among the best in the top flight of English football but which now languishes near the bottom in the third tier of the game. Other ministers issued their own rallying cries. Lord Peter Mandelson, the business secretary and Labour's senior election strategist, told the Sunday Mirror: "This election is not in the bag ? neither for us, nor the Tories.

"Every day we face, in one way or another, attempts to write Labour off or pretend that some of us are preparing for defeat. That's not my belief." David Miliband, the foreign secretary and, perhaps, a future Labour leader, was not quite so helpful, urging the prime minister to look "forwards not backwards" in an interview with the Independent yesterday. Some of the usual suspects were downright unhelpful. Charles Clarke, a former home secretary and longtime foe of Mr Brown, said that Labour stood to get "hammered" at the general election. And Barry Sheerman, a veteran Labour MP, said that Mr Brown should resign for the sake of the party unless he was able to use his speech to the conference tomorrow to restore Labour's moral authority. "This is the last chance for Gordon to connect, to show he can communicate to our traditional voters who voted for us in the last three elections," Mr Sheerman told the Mail yesterday. "Everybody knows this week is absolutely crucial for him. If he makes a good speech and the effect lasts longer than a couple of days' good headlines and it looks as though it could really improve our popularity in the polls, he could survive." Mr Brown made it clear yesterday that his own ambitions for his speech were pretty high. It would set out, he told BBC TV's Andrew Marr Show, how he would deal with "the whole future of our economy and the whole future of our society". He added: "My fight is for the future of Britain, my fight is for an economy that delivers jobs that are sustained, my fight is for a society where, in an insecure world, people are far clearer about the responsibilities they owe to people as well as clear about the rights they have." The prime minister added that he expected to see figures "pretty soon" that would show his economic policy was working to bring the UK out of recession. Mr Brown also tried to refute persistent rumours in the press recently that he was going blind in his one remaining eye (he lost the other in an accident while playing rugby as a teenager). Conceding that he had "problems" with his eyesight, he denied he was addicted to painkillers and said that an annual checkup he had earlier this month showed "absolutely no deterioration" in his sight. He did not look comfortable as he did so. How he must have wished for those halcyon days in New York and Pittsburgh when he only had the destruction of the world to worry about.