It seems like a different age. An election victory marked by a star-spangled reception at Downing Street; a prime minister who sought the company of footballers and rock stars; endless rhetoric about a Britain reborn as a "young country", leading the charge into an "age of achievement". Such was the peak of that short political era, bookended by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the events of 11 September 2001, whose currents - giddy optimism, the supposed end of ideology, politics-as-pop-culture - were so deftly merged by Tony Blair. Very quickly, those who believed it were so intoxicated that they aimed at nothing less than the reinvention of Britain's entire image: the rather daft project known as "the rebranding of Britain".
Surveying this strange business at nine years' remove, you search in vain for a contribution from Gordon Brown. While other senior Labour figures jumped in head first, he tended to have graver things on his mind: after all, as a counterpoint to the frivolity, he was obliged to embody Labour's new-found economic expertise. When, on Desert Island Discs in 1996, Sue Lawley asked the then shadow chancellor why he appeared so dour, he said: "It's important that people understand that you're serious about their money and the way you run the economy." Oasis albums, it seemed, would not echo around the Treasury (indeed, Brown's choice of records included less-than-thrilling selections by the Liverpool Cathedral Choir, Jessye Norman and the Scots folk-rock band Runrig).
When it came to infusing politics with a non-political breeziness, Blair could not get enough. It could have looked like metropolitan self-indulgence, were it not for the crafty way, learned from Bill Clinton, that his culture dovetailed with his political appeal. He affected to be tuned in to a hyperactive, primary-coloured Britain that the fusty Tories could not begin to understand. More importantly, his tastes were proudly rooted in the high street, and displayed the quality denoted by that achingly 1990s term "aspirational". He was, to use a British commonplace, "smart but casual", a figure who could tap into the avenues and culs-de-sac with which Labour had so lost touch.
Though each month brings proof that he now resides in a world light years from the rest of us, the myth of Blair as an upmarket everyman is just about intact. By way of hardening the idea that this is the key to political success, his mid-1990s shtick has been aped by the Camer-oons - the guitar swapped for an iPod, and sharpened rhetoric once again shoved aside by the idea that the new leader is young, switched-on and able to speak for a consensual "we". The parallels with 1997 are obvious, as evidenced by the Guardian's April Fool tale of Coldplay coming over to the Tories. David Cameron's poll ratings might still be underwhelming, but it probably counts as an unlikely success that so many people were taken in.
Should Brown finally take the top job, one can only wonder what would be his counter-attack. Thus far, save for such fragmented details as a past fondness for the US sitcom Friends and a lifelong attachment to Raith Rovers, the Chancellor is all but devoid of cultural colour, perhaps depriving him of the vocabulary with which to flesh out the stuff of dry politics. Blair's Britain ran beyond Westminster, out into the places populated by Worcester Woman and Mondeo Man, where the Prime Minister could be imagined swapping Sunday-morning greetings before sticking on his CD Walkman and mowing the lawn. Brown's domain, by contrast, can appear to be a twin fiefdom taking in a chunk of Whitehall and a corner of Fife, in which life (give or take the patter of tiny feet) must always revolve around a grim routine of red boxes and late-night phone calls.
The Tories spin contrived soundbites about an analog chancellor adrift in a digital age, but Brown's problem may be simpler. If the Blair Rules still apply, politicians can prosper only by transcending politics. That is something that he may not be programmed to do. There is, however, a more optimist view of his prospects, based on our changed understanding of what politics - substance and presentation - is about. The Blair Rules have broken down: these days, his TV skills are equated with oily insincerity, and the public has long since been immunised against the dreaded spin. The alliance once forged between politics and popular culture has also come to grief, thanks to the inevitable disjunction between media glitz and the responsibilities of government, and its deepening in the onerous post-9/11 world.
Moreover, if the innocent optimism of early new Labour is a distant memory (compare the Mo Mowlam/Clare Short cabinet with this month's reshuffle of old hands and dronish apparatchiks) so, too, is the Austin Powers-like fantasia that pro- vided its backdrop. In place of the giddy mood of 1997, there is a precipitous unease: London might still be what Newsweek once called "the coolest city on the planet", but its most iconic image of late has been that of a mangled bus; the dazzle of the UK's multiculturalism has been offset by alarm about racial tension and the BNP's manoeuvres. Global warming has belatedly found its way into the political mainstream; the divide between rich and poor worries even the Conservatives. Politics looks deadly serious, so whether one can affect the demeanour of a regular guy may well be an irrelevance.
For further proof, consider the stalling of Cameron's honeymoon, and - gains in the local elections notwithstanding - the Tories' failure to make that much headway in the national polls. Cameron may be edging forwards, but there is a greater sense of vast numbers simply switching off. Submerging hard politics beneath Blair-esque sophistry compounds that disconnection; in that context, the recent story of the Tory leader's chauffeur ferrying his shoes, shirt and paperwork to Westminster while Dave rides his bike works as a parable. Politics along the lines of 1997 - dilettantish, faux-consensual - looks flimsy, and if politicians are to recapture the electorate's interest, part of the solution will lie in a new moral clout. The key lies not in transcending politics, but in raising its game: though those at the top might shudder at the prospect, in renewing the idea of politics as a polite(ish) kind of warfare.
If Brown read the recent report of the Power inquiry into the state of our democracy, he was presumably cheered by a paragraph that identified a "strong preference . . . for distinct parties which stood for core principles", and claimed that "adversarialism (not for its own sake, but with a real purpose behind it) may be positively welcomed and may encourage engagement". Catering to this underrated aspect of the public's political appetites would surely suit him down to the ground.
With the application of a little poetic licence, one can even find a Brown-shaped hole in what used to be called the popular consciousness. In The Girl in the Café, Richard Curtis's crassly sentimental drama centred around the Make Poverty History campaign, Ken Stott plays a character known only as the Chancellor, though it's pretty clear who he's meant to be. He's tense, impatient and apparently unspun, and a brief speech dispensed just before he enters the conference chamber proves that he is on the side of the angels. "What we can achieve here is as important as the abolition of slavery," he thunders. "Go for it all - debt relief, aid, trade." Though laughable, it was obviously written as a divination of something stirring in the zeitgeist: a hope for some moralistic Sturm und Drang to restore the idea that the Westminster ritual could actually be about something.
In this model, blurring politics with culture through celebrity communion would still come with the whiff of absurdity, though it might at least have a semblance of substance. Take Brown's most recent showbiz plaudit, from Angelina Jolie, whose engagement with the Chancellor - as she waited to give birth in Namibia - involved the pair sharing a conference call, during which they discussed education in the developing world and the actress expressed the hope that Brown "does have the chance to do more good things" as prime minister. Here was a neat contrast with Blair's first taste of star endorsement, when an apparently refreshed Noel Gallagher cornered him at an awards ceremony and implored him: "Fuckin' do it for us, man!" The Blair episode looks not only dated, but superficial and parochial; the other chimes with a modern era in which politics is necessarily serious, and optimism is hard-earned.
Even if there is a place for Brown's brand of righteousness, there is a painful tension between his ideas and the ability to push them into the culture. He will need to find a more engaging speaking style than the approach summed up by Kenneth Clarke as "a particular technique of launching into lists". Though those of us who lament the intellectual dereliction of our politics might thrill to his big-sweep oratory (the thundering laments for "the great art never created . . . the great books never written"; the scattershot name-drops for Voltaire, Wordsworth and Hazlitt), he should now start finding room for the smaller thoughts that define everyday lives. His Britishness crusade is an example: the energy expended on such abstract matters as "a modern sense of patriotic purpose" - not to mention his borderline delusional ideas about the empire - can easily seem as airy-fairy as the Cool Britannia hype from which he kept his distance.
There is a bigger issue, hanging over just about everything he does. In recent times, prime ministers who have been held to embody their time - Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair - have begun their journeys as leaders of the opposition. Away from government, they had the time to keep the right company (Wilson's first photo op with the Beatles came six months before his first win; Britpop was all but over by the time Blair took office) and to develop the requisite strategies. They also had the opportunity to bang up against an establishment out of tune with the country. Their election victories marked a watershed: the outsider ushered in, the government reunited with the people, a new era begun. The contrast to that model is represented by prime ministers who have been given the job in advance of an election and singularly failed to capture any kind of spirit: John Major, Jim Callaghan - the cast, surely, of Brownite nightmares.
In all the fuzzy hopes of "renewal", there is an underlying wish for a political shift that would enable Brown to break the historical rules. Given the chance, he may yet turn up the volume on Labour's egalitarian mission, at home and abroad. His allies talk about a move away from the Blairite tic that defines showpiece policies against the party, and an accompanying brake - in the health service at least - on at least some of the market fundamentalism that so irks the Labour tribe. There are also mutterings (although Blair, in desperation, looks to have stolen this one) about the long-overdue business of re-engaging with constitutional reform and ridding politics of the whiff of corruption.
These are projects that would suit Brown's style, but there is an obstacle in the way. Two or three more years of accommodation with his opponents, of John Humphrys harrying him into the admission that a Brown government would be "Blairite", of the Labour Party dying on the vine, and how will he cope? Therein lurks the outcome he dreads: an era that turns out to be a mere epilogue, and Brown's Britain shown to be a broken successor to the country that Blair defined all those years ago. It needs repeating again and again: if Gordon Brown wants to kick-start his own age of achievement, he ought to make his move.