Leading article: The Prime Minister must inspire or be damned

Brown has to seize the chance to rally his demoralised party

The Labour Party has gathered for its pre-election conference in what appears an atmosphere of despondency, with some Cabinet ministers giving interviews in which they are almost publicly dismissing its prospects.

This makes the stakes at the conference unusually high. Gloomy polls are the unavoidable context. For several months, they have shown the Conservatives enjoying a substantial lead. Labour also did appallingly in the local and European elections in the summer.

Clearly, the Labour Party faces Herculean challenges if it is recover any momentum. It must shake off the spirit of fatalism to which the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, has referred and which makes the party look as if it is folding its robes and preparing to die.

As it confronts the possibility of defeat in only a few months' time, Labour has rapidly to re- establish itself as a serious and credible force. More specifically, Gordon Brown, yet again, has to defy those in his party and beyond who want him out before the next general election.

What Mr Brown and his ministers have to show above all is that they possess the ability to outline a vision of the future that is capable of inspiring a demoralised party and which can regain the attention of the wider electorate.

They have to go beyond trying to persuade the voters that they are a safe pair of hands and can be trusted to pull Britain out of the economic doldrums. They need to do that, too. But when asking the British people to grant them a fourth term – which would be unprecedented in the history of Labour governments – they need to offer more than alleged management skills.

This is not the responsibility of Gordon Brown alone. Whether or not they dream of eventually replacing him, at this juncture his ministerial colleagues must join him in showing that Labour remains in the game.

The imminence of a general election makes Mr Brown's speech tomorrow more significant than would normally be the case. More than any other single event this week, its success or failure will send a signal beyond the conference hall to the country about whether the party wants to retain power in order to do things, or whether it just wants to survive.

The Prime Minister must try to make sense of his leadership, which the polls suggest is deeply unpopular, and try to convince doubters that he is the right figure with the appropriate policies to guide Britain through the recession and beyond. This will not be easy as he was Chancellor for more than a decade.

Many people are angered about the recession and the MPs' expenses scandal, are worried by the rising death toll from the war in Afghanistan, and they appear to want to punish the Labour Government. But we need to bear in mind that British politics as whole will not benefit from a Labour Party that has given up the ghost or has ceased to become an effective political force.

This is not only because the policies of the Conservatives deserve to be scrutinised in much greater detail than has been the case so far – but won't be, if Labour remains hopelessly weak and distracted. It is also because the Labour Party does have important arguments to put forward about the economic recession and about the timing and scale of cuts in public spending.

But voters will pay attention, at this late stage, only if the party reveals a will to mount a real counterattack. The coming days will show whether this remains even a possibility.