It will all come to nothing if he can't win the vote

British politics will be defined by one gruesome fact this week - that Tony Blair is finished, even though he is still in charge.

British politics will be defined by one gruesome fact this week - that Tony Blair is finished, even though he is still in charge.

When he announced two years ago his intention not to seek a fourth term in office, the prime minister naively expected that speculation about his future would cease.

The past few weeks have shown the folly of such thoughts and this week's annual roadshow will only add to the pressure.

Some, of course, hope Mr Blair will announce the exact date of his departure during his keynote speech tomorrow. Others are more realistic.

They know the milestone of achieving 10 years in office is probably too tempting a legacy for the Sedgefield MP to pass up on and so are already pencilling May 2007 into their diaries.

However, there will be a more sinister undercurrent to this year's proceedings and that is about preventing Gordon Brown taking the job.

After revealing that the 2006 conference would be his last, Blair gave a green light to the Chancellor's allies to use Manchester as their very own election platform. The fringe events - the places where real party politics happen - are filled to the rafters with Brown's closest chums.

You don't get conferences without some sort of schoolyard scrap, though.

The anyone-but-Brown camp plans to take the fringe events by storm.

It will be a show worth watching but, as Newcastle City councillor and Labour NEC chairman Sir Jeremy Beecham warned, a fight to the death, as many would like to see, could backfire.

Opinion polls over the weekend revealed the extent to which the Tories are proving a more attractive option.

Asked who was the more honest, Gordon Brown or David Cameron, 27% put their faith in the Tory leader, 19% for the Chancellor. Tony Blair may be considered an electoral liability, but will Brown take them to electoral defeat?

That's the question most MPs, union leaders and activists will be asking this week. Allies may say Mr Brown will be as tough on Europe as Margaret Thatcher and hand management of the NHS to an independent body, but it won't make any difference if he can't win an election.

He has to show to the world today that he has the personality and charisma to win over disillusioned voters.

The New Labour project has for some been a disastrous experiment in politics but one thing is clear, there has been electoral erosion on an epic scale.

Mr Brown has to prove he is a man capable of turning that around.

So not only does he have to please the unions, but he also has to win the hearts and minds of Old Labour stalwarts, business leaders, pensioners, Middle England housewives and millions of voters turned off by spin and dishonesty.

The task is immense, but Brown knows he has to make the speech of his life or see his 13-year wait for office disappear in front of his eyes.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer