There was a time when almost everyone said that Tony Blair would be a very hard act to follow. They were wrong. Gordon Brown - not flash, just Gordon - has begun the second act of new Labour like the seasoned pro he is. Following the consummate actor-politician style of Blair meant that Brown has been allowed to represent himself as the real thing. Confused as we now are about what constitutes reality, many have breathed a sigh of relief. The bizarre spasm of outraged naivety that occurred at the beginning of Brown's tenure, over the fact that some things we see on TV are . . . er . . . made up, was but another symptom of our anxiety about what and whom can be trusted.
At the moment, we are liking this return of the real shtick partly because we can read whatever we like into it. There is a kind of unanticipated group hug going on between Brown and much of the media that is bound at some stage to end in tears. Right now, though, the consensus is that Brown has done very well indeed, outflanking opponents from both the left and the right. David Cameron, who once looked like the future, is flailing because he looks flimsy and fake compared to the unflashy son of a preacher man. He has little room to manoeuvre while he has to fight the ghouls in his own party.
Brown can do pretty much anything he wants at the moment and is sending out so many contradictory messages that they cancel each other out. But, strangely, we continue to accept that no spin is the new spin. Saatchi & Saatchi will be paid a fortune to tell us exactly this, for Brown is working as carefully on his image as Blair ever did while at the same time telling us that this really isn't his thing at all.
What came naturally to Blair - being all things to all men - is hard work for Gordon, but we know he likes to work. Non-stop. That's why I say: don't simply believe the hype, try squaring it with the reality. Ask yourself how a social conservative can bang on about the progressive consensus. How a man who wants "citizens' juries" is stopping delegates voting at their own party conference. How a pusher of PFI can bully public sector workers into not asking for more money. How he continues to defend the in vasion of Iraq when even people such as Alan Greenspan will now say it was largely about oil. How the purveyor of new politics has so few women around him. How he is going to generate grass-roots re-engagement with the political process from the top down.
Some of this is about sheer nous, cunning, cleverness, realpolitik, whatever you want to call it. But there will come a time when this self-proclaimed conviction politician has to show us his convictions. We think we know what Brown's are, and they involve words like work, duty, alt ruism, civic responsibility. We know little about his foreign policy. His gnomic pronouncements about needing to go beyond "a narrow debate between states and markets" in order to find solutions to many of our problems surely make us see that this man of substance is really rather vague on many issues. Perhaps this is what the new politics is actually about, and we just want someone who seems to be purposely getting on with the job to keep up appearances.
The aura of authenticity that Brown is cultivating is incredibly important: it allows him to claim the future but also to reference the past, when politicians didn't have to worry about effeminate stuff like style so much. But it is also indicative of what happens when politics moves to the centre and difference dissipates. When left and right become indistinguishable, what matters is not what people say but whether we think they really mean it. This is Cameron's problem. His ease and charm now look insincere up against Brown's brusqueness. Yet it wasn't only the Tories who underestimated Brown's appeal. His own side appear quite dazed and confused. For years, they were so dependent on Blair's charisma that they can't quite believe how it vanished into thin air overnight.
What can the opposition do? They can offer us politicians who are also extremely good at acting unspun, like Boris Johnson. They could move to a more libertarian position to counter Brown's innate puritanism. They could venture further inside the big tent, but they must know that Brown wants not only to win the election, but to obliterate them as a political force for ever.
Because the Conservatives are so boxed in, they are choosing to fight over the difficult territory of social breakdown.
Labour has been in denial about the growing social fragmentation it has presided over. A discourse of social justice and equality should come naturally to Brown, but it's tricky, because at some point he will somehow need to explain how the decline in social mobility took place on his watch. He is, of course, right to say that solutions will not come from narrow debates about states and markets, but it is now clear - even to the Tories - that they cannot be left to markets alone. Even on something so obviously sensible and popular as banning food additives, Brown seems remarkably reluctant to take on big business.
Closing our minds
The visceral distaste for the workless hordes who live on incapacity benefit with their dan gerous dogs and hooded children appears now also to be shared equally between right and left. The hard-working families beloved of Brown, the so-called respectable working classes, are acceptable. Those at the very bottom are seen as responsible for their own demise. It is a joke, however, to talk of social cohesion and even quality of life if we are closing our minds to such people and closing down their escape routes.
Brown could take on this argument much more forcefully by talking of our moral as well as political obligations. There is clearly room to do so if he chooses; just look at the middle-class revulsion at huge City bonuses.
If he dares, Brown will show that he has convictions instead of just telling us that he does. Conviction is part of this new image, too. Replacing old-fashioned ideology as the crucial political accessory, conviction sounds like gut instinct, absolute certainty like faith. It sounds a lot better than the pick'n'mix value system that Brown has pursued like all other important politicians of his generation. For he is both the man whom supporters say promoted redistribution by stealth and the man who facilitated the very PFI deals that may yet bankrupt the public sector in 15 years' time.
What is becoming apparent is not how much we know about Brown after a decade, but how little we are sure of. His solidity melts into air. The collective relief that now we are governed by a man's man who isn't going to do all that overemoting is still tangible. But - and it's a big but - have we really entered the age of seriousness, where fakery is despised and substance has at long last replaced style?
I wait to be convinced. Brown's style is actually what people are responding to right now. He has persuaded many that he is the real thing - even better than the real thing - which only goes to show we hardly know how to define the real any more.