Is there anybody out there with political courage?

Is there anybody out there with political courage?

As members of parliament depart for their long summer break, the state of British politics appears bleak, particularly on the centre left. The causes of the stagnation are linked - a prime minister who has overstayed his welcome and a Labour Party that is running out of steam.

It is not that David Cameron presents a convincing Conservative option - the more his policies are put to the test, the more they are seen as wanting. Yet many Labour MPs appear to believe that the next election is as good as lost already and that the laws of the political cycle are taking their course. They may be proven right (although, even with boundary changes, Labour still holds an inbuilt advantage). But they need not be.

In order for Labour to recover, any of three things must happen. Option one: while sunning himself at Cliff Richard's Barbados villa, or at some other wealthy person's holiday home, Blair must restore vitality to his leadership. Option two: while getting to know his newborn son, Gordon Brown must inject enthusiasm into a political alternative that runs the risk of disappointing even before it has begun. Option three: somebody else emerges, perhaps from the new generation, who is able to achieve what his elders cannot. Each is still possible, some more than others.

One criticism rarely levelled at Blair is a lack of confidence. Indeed, on that score the man is remarkable. He is resolute in the face of implacable hostility. Nearly a decade at the helm has served to reinforce his conviction that he is right, whether in his uncritical support for the Bush administration (which his former aide Sir Stephen Wall picks apart on page 14), or his determination to "rebalance" the criminal justice system, or his plans to introduce trust schools and privatise parts of the National Health Service.

Thus, it is not energy but direction that is the problem here. Any new lease of life for Blair and Blairism in this third term would increase the prospects of a Labour defeat next time.

Blair's more ardent supporters still hope that, if he hangs around long enough, they can "embed" their reforms and allow time for a more manageable successor to emerge. This is not impossible - after all, John Major rose quickly and seamlessly just at the moment of Margaret Thatcher's demise. Yet this scenario provides little comfort. Those next in line, preparing themselves for high office, also do not seem to understand what is required.

Political caution and cowardice among the current fifty- and sixtysomethings could be explained by the scars from 18 years of opposition. But these weaknesses afflict some younger ministers as well.

As for Brown, the jury is out. Privately, he sets out a vision that emboldens, with greater emphasis on social justice, political probity and his new-found taste for constitutional reform. Publicly, however, he shows little sign of understanding that it is as much the manner as the substance of Blair's appeasement of conservative lobbies that so undermined the Prime Minister.

Take Brown's announcement, if that is what it was, over Trident. If there is a security case for investing billions in a new US nuclear deterrent for the UK, then he should make it. Similarly, if there is a case on grounds of energy security or the environment for new nuclear power stations, then proselytise. On the domestic front, if new prisons really do cut crime and recidivism, then provide the evidence. Prime ministers-in-waiting who are confident of their position should not seek to sneak through difficult decisions.

In consistently arguing that what matters is not who takes over from Blair, but what, the NS represents mainstream opinion. The disappointments of recent years lie not in a government that made the odd tactical concession in order to secure a more important strategic goal, but that it never had the confidence to believe that it could act as a pioneering centre-left government, and succeed at elections. The electorate has moved on. It respects politicians who are candid, not cowed. (Kim Howells deserves a pat on the back for his views on the Israeli assault on Lebanon.)

The old recipe, reheated with a few extra condiments, is a recipe for failure.

Start again, Mr Mandelson

It is hard to grieve for anything as cumbersome and impenetrable as the world trade talks. They seem to show modern internationalism at its worst, a global theatre of bullying, hypocrisy, deceit and selfishness. Progress always seems to be the fruit of dubious trade-offs, and setbacks of broken promises. The big and rich throw their weight around and the small and poor get swindled. So sinister and remote is the whole business that now the five-year Doha round of talks (successor to the eight-year Uruguay round) appears to have broken down, there is a temptation to cheer.

Yet these talks, for all their faults (and one of those might be the way they bring Peter Mandelson back to our television screens), rank among the things which, if they did not already exist, would have to be invented. This is not because we should all be aspiring to a world of uniformly unfettered free trade, for that is nonsense - like talking of the surface of the globe as a level playing field. It is because we can do a lot better than we are doing now, and the way to make progress is not with a host of dodgy bilateral deals that are likely to leave the weakest even worse off, but through the establishment of general arrangements for fairer trade. Even the bitterest enemy of the World Trade Organisation cannot want anarchy. If Doha has collapsed, therefore, we must build again, but, as we start, we should take the opportunity to ensure that this time the foundations - the rules of the talks themselves - are sounder.

This article first appeared in the 31 July 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Sell-out: Why hedge funds will destroy the world