Ed Miliband
Ed Miliband didn't appear to convince conference attendees of the Labour Party's power Reuters

Year after year, Ed Miliband has come to his party conference with demands for him to make "the speech of his life" ringing in his ears.

And year after year he has delivered, from his "predatory capitalism" to energy price freeze performances, full of passion and genuinely gripping.

This year, just seven months before the general election campaign, it was more important than ever that he delivered. The stakes were high and the doubts about his leadership were there to hear; you only had to ask.

Within half an hour of arriving in Manchester's surprisingly soulless conference centre, which as usual looked and felt more like a trade convention, one sentence came from the lips of delegates, MPs and even, whispered, from senior party figures when asked.

"This just doesn't feel like a conference with a party convinced it is on the verge of power."

Worse, there was the "I didn't say this, but..." confession that the leader "hasn't got what it takes".

The leadership seem to think if they just keep their heads down, they will squeak through on election day
- Senior MP

We, and he, have heard it all before and on previous occasions, Miliband has defied his critics and pulled something off when it mattered. No one doubts his personal passion or the fact he has clearly got a plan and is driven by strong political beliefs, even ideology.

But this year, the omens were not good. All those concerns about his leadership have returned, with the polls persistently showing him at rock bottom, even when compared to Nick Clegg.

Labour's lead over the Tories remains stubbornly not good enough; it lags way behind the government on economic competence and the party has just been delivered a traumatic lesson about the fragility of its support in Scotland, which it relies on.

And it has had a noticeable effect on the mood of this last-chance conference. There is no bounce, no sense of a great movement feeling optimistic about its chances or that it's moment has come.

"The leadership seem to think if they just keep their heads down, they will squeak through on election day," said one senior MP.

David Cameron Speaking in Edinburgh
Ed Miliband appears to be too slow in keeping up with David Cameron's 'Tory tricks' Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Others worry Miliband and his team are slow off the mark when responding to Tory "tricks" such as David Cameron's surprise "English votes for English laws" announcement the morning of the Scottish referendum result.

One former minister, not prone to criticism, said: "There was a clear answer to that Cameron stunt. We agree with the Scottish devolution and will agree it, no ifs or buts.

"We also agree the English Question needs to be addressed - but sensibly and that will take a bit of time.

"The leadership should have known Cameron was going to pull this trick, plenty of us did, and [he should have been] ready with that quick answer to stop it in its tracks."

But it would be alright on the night, wouldn't it, because Miliband always delivers when it matters.

Well, perhaps not this time. The delight and enthusiasm that marked his previous conference performances as missing this year after what was described as a lacklustre, uninspiring speech.

That may be too harsh. There was an attempt by Miliband to offer something more solid and long-term, something like a programme for government rather than another quick headline-grabbing announcement.

But, as one long-time supporter said after his speech: "That was a speech by the leader of the Opposition."