Brown prepares for make-or-break speech

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Indy Politics

Gordon Brown today faces possibly the toughest test of his political life as he faces Labour MPs and activists with a speech intended to persuade them that he should remain as party leader and Prime Minister.

Mr Brown's crucial address to the party's annual conference in Manchester comes against the backdrop of calls for his removal by a handful of backbench critics, as well as opinion polls predicting near-wipeout for Labour at the next election.

Although the five-day gathering has seen little in the way of open dissent, commentators believe Mr Brown must deliver the speech of his life to win back genuine enthusiasm from grassroots activists and MPs.

He will seek to show his critics that the Government is taking action to aid the most disadvantaged families in Britain by unveiling schemes to provide every schoolchild with broadband Internet access at home and offer free part-time nursery care for two-year-olds.

The £300 million Internet programme will pay for broadband connections, software and computers for the 1.4 million school-age children who do not currently have web access at home.

Around 1 million households will be entitled to an Educational Technology Allowance voucher worth up to £700 when the three-year programme - paid for from savings from the Department for Schools budget - is rolled out from 2010/11.

The PM will cite OECD research suggesting having a computer at home can add as much as two terms' worth of progress to students' achievements.

And he will point out that one-third of schools now make learning materials available online, while most provide parents with reports on their children's work, attendance and behaviour e-mail.

Mr Brown will say: "To ensure we are prepared for the times to come, I am announcing that the Government will fund one million more households to get online, enabling parents to link with the teachers at their children's school and helping young people with their homework and coursework."

Mr Brown has won a respite from challenges to his leadership during the course of the conference by positioning himself as the only person with the experience and judgment to take the right decisions on the current economic crisis.

He has won applause from unions and the Labour left by indicating he will take action to curb massive City bonuses and introduce stronger supervision of the banking sector.

But many within the party believe that the truce may only be short-lived, with further resignations and a serious bid to oust him almost certain to follow if Labour loses the formerly safe seat of Glenrothes in a by-election in November.

The man seen as his most likely replacement, Foreign Secretary David Miliband, yesterday hailed the PM in his own conference speech as an "inspiration" and later insisted he was not seeking to take his job.

"There is no vacancy. I am not running a leadership campaign. I don't support a leadership contest," said Mr Miliband.

But the BBC later reported that he had been overheard apparently comparing himself to Michael Heseltine - the leadership rival who helped bring about Margaret Thatcher's demise - and suggesting that he had toned down his speech to avoid outshining the Prime Minister.

According to the BBC, the Foreign Secretary said: "I couldn't have gone any further. It would have been a Heseltine moment."

A spokesman for Mr Miliband said: "We do not respond to gossip, rumour or alleged conversations."

Union leaders this morning called on Mr Brown to use his speech to show clearly that he will put ordinary families' needs ahead of corporate greed.

The Unite union's joint general secretary Derek Simpson told the Prime Minister it was time to throw off the "shackles" of New Labour and reveal the real Labour.

"We have heard some messages which are resonating with working people across the country. Labour's intentions now have to become action," said Mr Simpson.

"The recognition that the bonus culture in the City of London is out of control is a welcome step forward which would never have happened during the Blair years.

"If Gordon takes a radical line and shows he is on the side of hard-working families in these difficult times he will fire the starting gun for a fourth Labour term."