Opening shots fired in election campaign

Skirmishing has begun in what we’re told is the start of the UK general election campaign. But odds things are happening. Spectator editor Fraser Nelson who might be expected to be a leading Cameron attack dog accuses the Conservative leader of spouting “ vapid nonsense” at his odd little campaign launch yesterday. Fraser’s campaign in favour of grim Tory realism over taxing and spending was boosted by Ken Clarke in the Telegraph, cautiously forecasting a need for tax increases. Cameron will have to sort his message out PDQ when he reveals more of a Tory budget plan later in the week. Strategically, with the Tory poll lead receding slightly, grim realism isn’t the note Cameron wants to strike just now. That’s what Saturday was about – rebalancing the Conservative message with optimism, with less stress on cuts. Clearly, Gordon Brown is setting a trap for Cameron. The Prime Minister looks like taking a terrific gamble on recovery to forestall the worst predictions of austerity in the months leasing up to the poll.. Witness Will Hutton, Keynesian critic of Labour performance in the Observer today, who reaches dizzy heights of optimism about the prospects for UK 2010. Gordon Brown at his own campaign (pre?) launch on the Andrew Marr Show followed the Hutton analysis almost word for word. He really seems prepared to brazen it out without extra tax rises and spending cuts before the election. At the onset of the campaign, the manoeuvres are all about setting a positive tone but the battle lines have yet to harden. And by the way, many of the leading political analysts are still on holiday so it’s still a bit of a phoney war. Will the lines be drawn between grim honesty or honest optimism? Or will the campaign narrow down to a debate about the pace for reducing public debt? We’ll find out in the coming weeks.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London