Leading article: Come out fighting, Mr Brown

Some people are surprised that Gordon Brown has survived as Prime Minister this long. The Conservatives have been consistently ahead in the opinion polls for two years, while Mr Brown has seemed at the mercy of events. Many journalists and their editors have made up their minds. While David Cameron – hard to recall – was in a fight for his political life two years ago, and was nervous about Mr Brown's credit-crunch recovery last year, he now seems to radiate an inner unshakeable confidence.

Last week, the Liberal Democrats had a reasonable conference. Nick Clegg's speech attracted mixed notices, but our verdict is that it was pretty good, actually. The fuss about Vince Cable's "mansion tax" was awkward, but the advantage was that it attracted attention for a sort of egalitarian message; and the strategic orientation of the party against the Conservatives was clear enough.

Gordon Brown, meanwhile, had an unusual week. Garlanded on Tuesday as World Statesman of the Year by Henry Kissinger in New York, he was the victim of a British media narrative that willed him to be humiliated by Barack Obama. An unfortunate combination of over-eager advance work by No 10 and a White House initially focused on China, Japan and Russia gave the travelling press pack the chance to write the "Obama snubs Brown" story. This was at odds with the facts on the ground by the time the circus had moved to Pittsburgh for the G20 summit. By the time of the friendly talks between President Obama and Mr Brown on Friday, however, the damage was done to Mr Brown at home.

That, then, is the backdrop against which the Labour Party assembles in Brighton for its last conference before the general election. Almost unanimously, the media believe that that election is lost, and that Mr Brown might as well give up. He will not, as our correspondent Tom Brown argues today. Tom Brown has known the Prime Minister, man and boy, and argues that "those who struggle to understand Gordon Brown have to understand that he is a product of a particular time, place and people".

He is not going to use ill-health as an excuse to step down. "He does not want to go out on a sour note and he is stung by any suggestion of failure."

Equally, it is clear from our interview with David Miliband today, that the Foreign Secretary is not going to move against him this side of a general election. "I'm joining the 'Gordon Brown Stays as PM' campaign," he says. In any case, much of the Labour Party seems reconciled to defeat, and lacks the energy even to try not to lose by too much.

The Independent on Sunday agrees with Peter Hain, who writes today, that if too many in the party "behave as if a Tory win is inevitable", they will make it so. Ed Balls, John Prescott and Alastair Campbell all chipped in yesterday to make similar points. We paraphrase: this defeatism is ridiculous; never give up until it is over. And the truth is that Labour will have a strong case for re-election, and a powerful message about having made the right decisions during the economic crisis. Mr Brown nationalised the banks and pumped spending power into the economy, decisions that were opposed by the Tories and that are now bearing fruit. This is likely to crystallise early next year.

Earlier this month, the Conservatives were jubilant at having "won the argument" when Mr Brown accepted in plain English that public spending would have to be cut. Of course, it would have helped if Mr Brown (who seems unable to help himself) had not sought to deny the laws of arithmetic, but the Tories' argument is a media game not a debate about substance. That is why – despite it all – we believe that all may not be lost in the Labour cause.

There is a real argument to be had, as Mr Miliband suggests, about the Government's record, the thinness of the Tory alternative and whether Labour still has ideas. The conclusion of that argument is surely not foregone. Not a single vote has yet been cast. While the opinion polls show a deep disaffection with the Government, they record no great enthusiasm for Mr Cameron.

This week, the Labour Party – at all levels – has a chance to prove that it still wants and deserves power. Unless it rises to that challenge, it is going to be defeated in seven months' time. So it has nothing to lose. This is a time to take some risks; to be big, not small; brave, not cautious. This, Mr Brown, is a time to show some fight.