Leading article: A genuine election

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The Independent Online

There is something remarkable about the sheer bloody-minded resilience of Gordon Brown. Three times the plotters in his own party have come for him, convinced by the opinion polls that he was a liability to their cause. Most of the media have been unremittingly negative towards him, since the bursting of the brief bubble of approval that followed his arrival in No 10. As he says in an exclusive interview with The Independent on Sunday today, "What I say to the public has been mediated by newspapers that are very hostile to me." He was explaining his decision to go on Piers Morgan's television show: "I cannot allow myself simply to be presented by one or two newspaper groups, so I will take my campaign into the country in every possible way."

He was vindicated in that decision. Many people watching the programme with an open mind would have been impressed by the character of the man. In our interview today, he makes the distinction between "character" and "celebrity": a self-serving distinction, perhaps, but a valid one. Of course, one television appearance was unlikely to turn the opinion polls around. But his performance was part of a strategy of persistence that has accompanied a narrowing of the Conservative lead over recent months.

This newspaper has tried to resist the herd instinct of most of our rivals. We sought to give a fair hearing to a Prime Minister making difficult decisions in trying times. When he was written off at the end of 2007, and the middle of 2008 and for most of last year, we pointed out that he was making the right decisions in response to the unfolding economic crisis. Yes, he must bear some responsibility for the debauching of the public finances before the crunch – although it must be said that criticism of public borrowing from the opposition and the media was pretty muted at the time. Yes, there were failures of regulation of the banks – although again, hindsight is a wonderful aid to sanctimoniousness. And, yes, promising an end to boom and bust was a foolish sound bite. But Mr Brown did make the right decisions to nationalise the banks, stimulate the economy and shape the world response; and David Cameron and George Osborne got it wrong. That gives the Prime Minister a sounder footing from which to pitch for "a future fair for all" than most people expected.

We said that the opinion polls last year and the year before did not necessarily reflect the real choice that the voters would make at the election. And, as we report today, Mr Brown seems to be gaining momentum, relishing the prospect of a fight, at precisely the moment when Mr Cameron seems markedly less sure of himself, and when Conservative policy seems to have come off worst in its first, tentative contacts with reality. Mr Cameron seems to have allowed a sense of drift to suffuse his party. By contrast, in our interview with him, and in his rallying of the Labour troops in Coventry yesterday, Mr Brown has simplified the messages to be put to the voters. Often derided as a poor communicator who tries to overcomplicate things, he now seems to have achieved an unexpected clarity.

So the country does face a choice at the coming election. Interestingly, it is a choice that, broadly, finds Labour and the Liberal Democrats on one side, arguing against earlier and deeper cuts in public spending, and the Conservatives on the other. Mr Brown can justly claim that unemployment has risen by much less than in previous recessions, and that this has implications for the choice of this country's future direction. Mr Cameron's new-found concern about Labour's failure to deliver on its ideal of greater equality is a clever rhetorical device, but it is unsupported by policy proposals, and contradicted by the Conservatives' fiscal stance.

There are other large issues at stake, to be sure. Mr Cameron – and Nick Clegg – have more liberal instincts than Labour's nannying tendency; and there is a worrying statism in Mr Brown's industrial policy. Nevertheless, as the intensity of the long election campaign rises, Mr Brown is in a stronger position than his enemies in the media, the opposition and his own party could have predicted. He is the pilot that weather'd the storm, as George Canning wrote of Pitt the Younger.

It is a bonus to journalism that this election should be competitive, the most uncertain since 1992. But it is, above all, in the interests of democracy that the outcome should be in doubt. Whatever one's view of Mr Brown, he has at least rendered us all that great service.