It had to happen sooner or later. The great thing about elections is that they are political accelerators; they speed up argument and analysis. Up to now, the country's attention has seemed to be half off the campaign. But the imminent prospect of a political execution concentrates the mind wonderfully. And clearly, though the election may not be wide open, it is not over, either.
Labour is being attacked for changing its mind and mimicking the Tories. What are the old policies that you still believe in, its leaders are asked. Why have you changed your mind on so many important things? And, as one voter said to Robin Cook on BBC Radio's Election Call, why should anyone prefer ''Labour margarine to Tory butter''?
This line of attack is exactly what John Major and his people have been using in the House of Commons for months, though voters are expressing it better. In logic, it is unfair on Labour. It is the old damned-if-they- do, damned-if-they-don't Conservative encirclement strategy: either Labour hasn't really changed, in which case they are dangerous or they have changed, in which case they are inconstant and synthetic.
Either way, the logical conclusion is that only the Tories can ever be trusted to govern - which hardly chimes with our experience of the past few years. Labour, though, has made this strategy easier for the Prime Minister than it might otherwise have been. After tacking cleverly towards more popular and centrist positions, they have moved too close to the Conservatives in recent weeks, while being too timid about emphasising their own distinctive agenda.
Without Gordon Brown's adoption of Kenneth Clarke's borrowing and spending totals, Labour would not have been so vulnerable to the pounds 1.5bn ''tax hole'' charge and would not have had to emphasise its readiness to embark on a new privatisation programme - and would not, therefore, have contradicted itself on the air traffic control sale and fallen into yesterday's problems.
This is how policies unravel; and there are other examples. Had Blair not been concentrating on Tory thinking about devolution, and minimised his own policy of Scottish home rule with the ''English parish council'' comparison, last week's policy problem would have been avoided. This business of trying to offend nobody is unsustainable.
It also means Labour is failing to exploit its strongest alternative selling points and boldest pre-electoral thinking. It doesn't highlight its own good policies on predatory pricing - presumably because it doesn't want to offend Murdoch. Or take political reform. Blair is fastidiously leaving the sleaze issue, for the most part, to the newspapers and political outsiders like Martin Bell.
One can understand his thinking. For many people, ''sleaze'' has become a turn-off. The word, though sibilantly irresistible, is unhelpful to the extent that it confuses sexual escapades with serious allegations of corruption and the abuse of power. But there are real issues here which ought to be close to the heart of the election campaign.
Don't get me wrong. We should wish Bell well. It has been instructive to see the possessive fury of the Tory politicians and pundits at the presumption of a mere war correspondent butting into their game - what right has he, they ask, what experience and knowledge? (The experience, I suppose, not to trouser envelopes from tycoons stuffed with high-denomination notes.) Were Bell elected, that would be a cheering thing for democracy, not a coup by the cynical metropolitan media. The best thing about Martin Bell MP would be that he would not be obliged to take a party whip or line; a Commons which contained at least some free radicals and independent spirits would have a far better chance of regaining its popularity than one that didn't.
But the problem with what is happening in Tatton is that ''sleaze'' has been removed from the bigger political context and turned into a personal struggle, the honour or lack of it of one Conservative ex-minister. This implies that the issue of government conduct can be resolved by verbal jousts on Knutsford Common or a show of hands in a Cheshire pub. Indeed, Major and Michael Heseltine are saying already that we should be putting these sorts of issues behind us.
Which is, the moment you think about it, the equivalent of saying that we should be putting some of the most dramatic political events of the past few years behind us.
Had Labour been more confident and excited about its programme of political reform, it would have been explaining how standards in public life, past governmental failures such as the BSE saga, the murkier corners of party funding, the erosion of public service and the spread of quangos are all connected - how, during the past 18 years, a closed, dank web of favours and private relationships has spread through the heart of the British state.
Labour people would have been reminding the country that ''Nolan'', far from being a catch-all Tory rebuttal to questions about standards, was set up as a defensive measure; and that Major tried in the Commons to neuter the committee's impact. They would have been raising the Scott inquiry, and the Government's frankly shabby response to it. Blair would have been banging on, day after day, about freedom of information, new rights and the repair of democracy.
Labour, in short, would have been replying to the perfectly proper scrutiny of its recently buried beliefs, with a similar scrutiny of the Conservatives' recently buried actions. But no: for some reason, political reform is deemed unsuitable as a mainstream election topic. It has been as if Labour is slightly alarmed about its own constitutional agenda.
The reason, I assume, is that Labour's huge poll lead has encouraged a strategy of caution and conservatism, focused only on the Middle English swing voters who are deemed all-important. Logical enough: but it means that the party which ought to be challenging has become the incumbent, and the party of 18 years in office is attacking like the Opposition. Labour is standing there holding its popularity with Middle England like some huge, rare and infinitely fragile glazed pot, which might crash to the ground if it attempts to move a muscle - or even breathes out.
The overall impression of a Labour press conference is of a roomful of zipped lips, buttoned imaginations and clenched buttocks - a party trapped by its own opinion-poll lead. The atmosphere is oppressive, and only made more so by the moronic pop song, ''Things can only get better'' that echoes through the campaign - somewhere between Prozac and Muzak.
Now it may be that all this is nothing but shrewd realpolitik and will give New Labour a victory of historic and breathtaking proportions. Blair has taken his party to the very edge of such a victory, and to a hugely impressive position, partly because of the tight control he and his team exercise, and partly because of his own brand of reassuringly centrist politics. He has created a broad, if shallow, coalition of views and interests far wider than before. Perhaps nothing matters more than three more weeks of self-discipline, caution and risk-avoidance.
But the political accelerator is at work, and this campaign is coming jumpingly alive. And it is hard to be persuasive while you're biting your tongue.Reuse content