The campaign delivers its first shock: 14-month old baby avoids being kissed

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Indy Politics

Even before the Prime Minister could announce the date of the election, Michael Howard, the Tory leader, was on his feet getting his retaliation in first.

Even before the Prime Minister could announce the date of the election, Michael Howard, the Tory leader, was on his feet getting his retaliation in first.

He was taking no chances. There were microphones on both lapels of his suit, just in case. His speaking lectern had been placed under the modern glass canopy outside the classical courtyard of the Chancery Court Hotel in central London, lest it rain upon his parade.

His staff had even sought to forestall jibes about Mr Howard's dark Thatcherite past by choosing a venue, owned by a group called Renaissance, which has recently undergone a refurbishment so thoroughgoing that its PR brochure speaks of the "reincarnation of a landmark".

In front of an audience of hand-picked young, and visually inoffensive, supporters Mr Howard accused the Prime Minister of "already secretly grinning" about a third election victory and warned voters of Labour's "smirking politics".

Whether or not Tony Blair heard, as he left Downing Street to address the cameras his demeanour was brisk and his delivery clipped. He spoke in a burst of staccato phrases, each just a few words long.

Perhaps he was tense; he was fiddling with his cuffs. Perhaps he was thinking of the three polls which that morning had unexpectedly closed the gap between Labour and Tories, and one - recording only the views of those who said they were certain to vote - which gave the Conservatives a five-point lead. Perhaps he was trying to sound businesslike. Or perhaps he was overawed by the momentous nature of the event.

There would be a general election. Pause. In Britain. On May the fifth. It would be a big choice. Pause. A big decision. The British people are the boss and they would make that decision, he added, putting the need to be demotic before considerations of mere grammar. Serious stuff. No grinning here.

Indeed the only person who was smirking in all this was Mr Howard's wife, Sandra, who could not suppress a grin when her husband came to the Conservative campaign phrase, "Are you thinking what we're thinking?", which has been crafted by the party under the tutelage of the Australian election whiz Lynton Crosby.

Indeed, the elegant Mrs Howard was so taken with it that she smirked again when Mr Howard repeated the phrase a few hours later in Birmingham. Perhaps she did it again when he made the same speech in Manchester not long afterwards, though she was out of camera shot for that.

Mrs Howard was the only leader's wife in evidence. There was no sign of Cherie Blair. And Charles Kennedy's other half, Sarah, who is expecting a baby during the campaign, was at home with her feet up. (The Liberal Democrat leader was coy about the due date, saying only that the baby was expected in mid-April, for fear that his rivals might plan something for the period of his truncated paternity leave; two days is all he has booked in).

In any case Mr Kennedy has already been beaten in the baby stakes. Soon after announcing the election, Mr Blair was moving purposefully to a helicopter to take him for his first constituency visit, to Dorset South. There he met 14-month-old Jack Rolfe from Somerset, who remarkably managed to avoid the traditional politician's kiss, before the Labour leader went on to demonstrate to another group of citizens far too young to vote that he knew how to use the camera on his mobile phone.

It was classic Blair. Jacket off. Shirt-sleeves. Hands on hips. Mug of tea. Hair gently tousled bythe wind on the balcony of the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy, which will host Olympic sailing if Britain wins the 2012 Olympics.

It was a revealing first venue. South Dorset is Labour's most marginal constituency; its MP Jim Knight has a majority of just 153. No wonder Mr Blair almost broke the poor man's arm with the vigour of his handshake on arrival. It was not, you will note, the constituency with the smallest Tory majority which Labour might hope to win. This was a choice which told us that Labour strategists know that they are on the defensive.

Mr Howard aimed at major population centres: London, Birmingham and Manchester to open his party's campaign. And as one Tory candidate hailed him as a leader who will "roll up his sleeves and act to sort out the country's problems" he kept his jacket on all day.

So did Charles Kennedy, who had hired a light aircraft, rather than a helicopter like the Labour and Tory leaders. That enabled him to launch his campaign in Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh, Norwich and Newcastle - which was the scene of one of the biggest upsets in last year's local elections when the Liberal Democrats took the council, ending 30 years of Labour control.

For all the contrasting styles and venues what was most striking was the similarity of what the three leaders said about hospitals, schools and all the rest. Some of the language was even interchangeable. Mr Blair spoke about "a country where people who play by the rules get on and those who don't, don't", while Mr Howard wanted to "reward people who do the right thing, who play by the rules". Mr Kennedy's distinctive contribution was to insist that his party would try to keep the campaign positive.

Some hope. Mr Howard virtually said as much when he announced, talking about the need to keep hospitals clean: "This is not politics, it's personal". He cited the case of his mother-in-law who two years ago died from a superbug she picked up in hospital. Labour's obsession with targets has created a culture in which superbugs thrive, he said.

It's not politics, it's personal. Over the next 30 days it is only likely to get more so.